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Stockholm, Sweden – A week after the Swedish Security Service (Sapo) detained a man on suspicion of plotting a terror attack, only to let the 22-year-old Iraqi man go days later, Swedes have been left pondering how badly they had been misled.
Three sombre officials last week called an unusual press conference in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. Just seven days after the Paris attackers killed 130 people, Sweden, like most of Europe, was tense.
“We have received concrete intelligence that has prompted us to open an investigation into the preparation of an act of terror,” said Sapo Director-General Anders Thornberg, who underscored that the intelligence service had found no direct link to the Paris attacks.
Overall, he said, “violent Islamism is considered the biggest threat to Sweden, which is considered a legitimate target”.
‘Intensive operative phase’
Thornberg told the Swedish public that the equivalent of an arrest warrant had been issued for the man, but declined to give any details during the “intensive operative phase” of the investigation.
Rashid Musa, chairman of the Young Muslims in Sweden and a long-term critic of what he calls the authorities’ “out-of-proportion” tactics when detaining terror suspects, said people in Sweden are “very faithful” to Sapo.
“We have this idea that they can never do anything wrong, whereas in the US and the UK people are much more sceptical and critical of their intelligence services,” he told Al Jazeera.
About 53 percent of polled Swedes expressed trust in Sapo’s ability to do its job, according to a 2014 review by the Society, Opinion and Media (SOM) Institute at Gothenburg University.
Last week, it turned out that the Sapo chief did not have to give details about the case for the information to spread.
When the intelligence service sent a picture of the 22-year-old, a former agricultural student from Mosul in northern Iraq, to all police field officers, the photo was quickly leaked.
Of poor quality, the picture made it difficult to tell if the man was laughing or snarling; the pixelation had turned his teeth almost into fangs.
In the days that followed, the media coverage gathered momentum. “It was like watching an episode of Homeland whenever you turned for news,” Musa said.
“We ended up in a mass psychosis,” said Asa Linderborg, the culture editor of Sweden’s largest newspaper, Aftonbladet. “We stopped thinking critically. Sapo made us complicit in scaring the wits out of Sweden, even school children were fearful, the whole thing was absurd.”
In an unusual move for Sweden, most mainstream media, including Linderborg’s employer, published the man’s picture and name, despite a press tradition of treating suspects as innocent until proven guilty.
“When it comes to terror-related crimes, it’s the inverse – guilty until proven innocent – and that’s true not just for the justice system but for Sapo and the media,” said Musa, who also criticised the detention of a 39-year-old in 2010, which the police later admitted had been a mistake.
“Swedish Muslims have a much more complex relationship to Sapo than Swedes in general,” Musa added.
Four days after the press conference, the terror suspect was arrested at a facility where he was living with other asylum seekers.
Many wondered why Sapo had issued a nationwide alert for his arrest when the suspect’s name was not only in the Migration Board’s register, but also clearly visible on the mail box at that address.
In other words, he was making no attempt to hide. On Facebook he had liked Real Madrid, Candy Crush Saga and the local food store in the small, former mining town in northern Sweden. There were no whispers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
On Sunday, just three days after being arrested, the man was released from custody without charge.
“We in the media took part in a man hunt of an innocent man,” Linderborg noted.
The prosecutor in the case, Hans Ihrman, on Tuesday defended the justice system.
“The critics are so dead certain despite not having seen the preliminary investigation notes,” he said. “If they’d seen the intelligence material and been able to review it, then the situation would have been different.
“Had this gone to trial, the preliminary investigation notes would have been made public. On that point there’s no difference between prosecuting a suspected shoplifter and prosecuting a suspected terrorist,” he added.
“But during an investigation the material is not made public, due in part to not wanting potential witnesses or suspects to be privy to the information.”
Such arguments do little to quieten the critics.
“This past week has been a total fiasco for Sapo,” Musa said, with Linderborg adding, “perhaps if Sapo manages to counter a real threat, the media will trust them again”.
Looking back, critics note that it was only luck that prevented a suicide bomber from killing scores of people five years ago, when an Iraqi-born Swede detonated a suicide vest just off one of Stockholm’s main shopping strips. He killed only himself.
As for the case that has played on repeat in Swedish media this past week, Sapo said in a press release that the investigation is continuing with the aim of being able to “completely disregard the planning of an attack against Sweden”.