- Associated Press - Thursday, August 17, 2023

STOCKHOLM — Sweden raised its terrorism alert level on Thursday one notch to the second-highest, following a recent string of public desecrations of the Quran in the Scandinavian country by a handful of anti-Islam activists, sparking angry demonstrations across Muslim countries.

Sweden has in recent weeks asked citizens abroad and businesses linked to the country to “be attentive and aware of the information the authorities communicate,” following a string of public burnings of copies of Islam’s holy book by an Iraqi asylum-seeker.

”We know that planned terrorist acts have been prevented,” Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told a news conference. “These are people who have simply been arrested. Both in Sweden and abroad.” He did not elaborate.

The Scandinavian country’s domestic security service, SAPO, said the overall security situation has deteriorated and the risk of terrorism in Sweden was now at level four - a “high threat” - on its five-point scale, a first since 2016.

“We are in a deteriorating situation and this threat will continue for a long time,” SAPO head Charlotte von Essen said at a separate news conference, adding that “the threat of attacks from actors within violent Islamism has increased during the year.”

She said that Sweden is currently regarded as “a priority target” for such attacks.

PHOTOS: Sweden raises its terror threat level to high for fear of attacks following recent Quran burnings

While urging people in Sweden to continue to live “normally,” von Essen stressed that there wasn’t a single incident that led to the heightened threat level.

”I understand that many Swedes are concerned about the meaning of the new and higher threat level,” Kristersson said. “We stand up for our democratic values, but we protect ourselves.”

“Swedish police are ready to face this situation,” the country’s national police chief Anders Thornberg said.

Earlier this year, a far-right activist from Denmark burned a copy of Islam’s holy book outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Some 250 people retaliated and gathered outside the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul, where a photo of the Danish anti-Islam activist Rasmus Paludan was set on fire.

Kristersson reiterated Thursday that Swedes abroad and Swedish interests also should be vigilant and cited the storming of Sweden’s Embassy in Baghdad last month and an attempted attack on the diplomatic mission in Beirut last week.

Denmark’s national police said Wednesday that “on the recommendation” of the domestic intelligence service PET, it was “necessary to maintain the temporarily-intensified efforts at the internal Danish borders.” Sweden has also stepped up border controls and identity checks at crossing points.

On Tuesday, PET and its foreign intelligence counterpart said in a joint statement that the recent Quran burnings “have resulted in considerable, negative attention from, among others, militant Islamists.” The terror alert level in Denmark is also at the second-highest level.

The recent burnings of the Quran have further complicated Sweden‘s attempt to join NATO, a step that has gained urgency after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. In July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that the burning incidents would pose another obstacle to Sweden‘s bid.

Like many Western countries, Sweden doesn’t have any blasphemy laws that prohibit the burning of religious texts and Swedish police allowed the protests, by a handful of demonstrators, citing freedom of speech.

The U.N. human rights chief Volker Türk during a debate last month called for respect of “all others,” including migrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and women and girls who wear headscarves, while affirming the right to freedom of expression.

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