'We're so peaceful. It can't happen here': Swedes react to terror at home

Shocked residents of Sweden have been wondering how such an attack could this happen in a peaceful country after a truck plowed into people in central Stockholm Friday, killing four. Yet security experts point to radicalized Swedes linked to terror elsewhere. The CBC's Julian Sher reports from the Swedish capital.

Security service had been warning 'it's just a matter of time'

People gather at the crime scene near Ahlens department store in central Stockholm on Saturday, the day after a hijacked beer truck plowed into pedestrians on Drottninggatan and crashed into the store, killing four people and injuring 15 others. (Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/Reuters)

She is clutching her handbag, streaming out of downtown Stockholm along with thousands of others in the wake of a terror attack. Like so many around her, she looks stunned — as if her world has come unhinged. Because for her, it has.

"That was pure evil. Why would someone do that?" Ann Charlotte Linderoth asks me.

The 44-year-old mother of two works in an office just a block away from where a truck barrelled down a crowded shopping street, killing four.

We huddled inside our office until it was safe to flee, she explains. "It was horrible, so horrible." And then tears start flowing.

Why the tears?

I try to comfort her, hold her for a few moments, but also I have to ask: Why the tears?

"Because this is Sweden. We're so peaceful. It can't happen here," she says, wiping her tears away. 

'That was pure evil. Why would someone do that?' said Ann Charlotte Linderoth. (Julian Sher/CBC)

I meet Linderoth at the outskirts of the city as commuters are making their way home on foot, with trains and buses shut down and the city paralyzed.

But as people are fleeing the downtown core, journalists attending a conference outside of Stockholm are rushing to get to the attack zone. I walk for half an hour through the eerily deserted streets to get to the city centre.

On some corners, people huddle in small packs, their worried faces illuminated only by the white glow from their cellphone screens as they call loved ones or search for the latest news.

People in Stockholm make their way home on foot as public transportation is shut down after the attack. (Julian Sher/CBC)

A city of almost one million that should be bustling and partying on a moonlit Friday night is spookily silent – except for the buzz of a helicopter and the wail of a distant police siren.

As I make my way closer to the site of the attack, I spot a young man talking nervously with others at a bus shelter.

A narrow escape

Antonio Congiusta, a 21-year-old student, is recounting how he narrowly escaped the speeding truck that was five metres behind him by leaping into an open shop door.

"People were crying and screaming, people were looking for their relatives and friends," he says, recalling the bodies he saw on the street: "I don't know if they were dead."

Then he echoes what is undoubtedly on the minds of so many Swedes: "I don't know how things like this can happen in a peaceful county that was always neutral."

An empty Kungsgatan street, sealed off from cars a few blocks from the attack site in the central Stockholm, Sweden. (Anna Ringstrom/Reuters)

Much later that night, back at the journalism conference, I ask one of the organizers, Fouad Youcefi, for his thoughts. "Many people are shocked naturally, but we shouldn't be," says the reporter for the public broadcaster SVT who has covered terror stories for several years.

"That it happens in Sweden should not come as a big surprise," he explains. "The security service has been warning that it's just a matter of time."

Swedes who join ISIS

Little is known so far about the identity or motive of the Stockholm attacker, but according to media reports, at least 300 Swedes went to Syria and Iraq to join Islamist groups in recent years — and as many as 140 foreign fighters may have returned to Sweden.

And while those numbers are far below the number of fighters from France or the U.K., that still gives Sweden one of the highest per capita rates of ISIS recruits in Europe.

News report late Friday indicated that a man had been arrested in connection with the Stockholm attack in Märsta, around 40 kilometres north of the Swedish capital.

Märsta is the same area where one of the suspects behind the bloody November 2015 Paris attacks lived. Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian citizen who was killed by Belgian police in a raid after the attacks, had been described by investigators as being a "cell commander" behind the Paris bloodshed.

"We have had Swedes involved in terror attacks across Europe," says Youcefi, "and we have had a lot of radical Islamists travelling to join ISIS."

Still, the words of the distraught mother, Ann Charlotte Linderoth, whom I had met just hours earlier, keep coming back to haunt me: "It can't happen here."

It sounds like such a cliché.

Until it does. And it happens in your hometown.


Julian Sher

the fifth estate

Julian Sher is the senior producer of CBC TV's investigative program The Fifth Estate. He is also the author of Somebody's Daughter: The hidden story of America's prostituted children and the battle to save them. @juliansher