A changing threat puts Sweden’s security at risk

Foreword by Charlotte von Essen, Head of the Swedish Security Service

Sweden’s security is being challenged on several fronts. It is becoming increasingly clear that Swedish democracy is facing a wider and rapidly changing threat. Hostile states and violent extremists have enhanced their capabilities, while our vulnerabilities have increased. Also, due to the current situation and the developments that the world, including Sweden, has to deal with, we cannot take anything for granted.

The very serious situation that has unfolded in Ukraine over the past few months is a clear example of how rapidly the threat is changing. Developments we are seeing now have an impact on the European security order, and ultimately on Sweden’s security.

The Swedish Security Service is a national security service, and we can see that the threat to Sweden has both a military and a civil dimension. Sweden is under pressure, and this shapes our Service’s assessment of the situation. Technological developments enhance the capabilities of hostile states and violent extremists alike. This is paired with increasing vulnerabilities, as know-how, resources and legislation have not kept pace with the threat. The threat is manifested in frequent activities and attacks, legal and illegal, targeting individuals as well as our society, and the threat actors are prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve their goals.

The current reality, with an ever-changing security situation, highlights the reconstruction of our total defence, an issue on the table not least because of what we have seen happen in our geographical vicinity. The Swedish Security Service has an important part to play here. The complex threat targets the very cornerstones of our society, and we need to consider this when building a solid national defence. Hostile states’ attacks on Sweden could lead to an undermining of our fundamental rights and freedoms, to our country losing jobs and know-how, to possible outside influencing of our political decision-making, and to our territorial sovereignty being challenged.

Russia, China and Iran are still the main threats, and are now acting more offensively to promote their own interests, create spheres of interest and force other states to act as they want them to. In Russia’s case, this was obvious already prior to their invasion of Ukraine.

Hostile states continue to carry out frequent cyber activities, in the form of active cyber reconnaissance, against several targets in Sweden. On a couple of occasions in 2021, such activities turned into attack attempts. There have also been a number of cyber attacks launched from Swedish territory against targets in other countries.

Not only is Sweden facing a changing intelligence threat, but there are also major vulnerabilities in Swedish society, brought on, for instance, by digitalisation and by insufficient protective security measures at critical assets. The cyber arena is used for intelligence gathering, influence operations and malicious attacks. The Swedish Security Service has noted that hostile states are increasingly turning their attention to civilian targets. An increasing number of countries also see space as an arena for future conflicts, and it is already regarded as an intelligence arena.

These developments directly and indirectly affect the security situation and the intelligence threat in Sweden. Functioning protective security is crucial in improving Sweden’s ability to handle threats and attacks, and reduce vulnerabilities at all levels of society. This is the foundation of Sweden’s total defence. Sweden can be defended only if robust protective security measures are in place throughout society. Should civil society fail when it comes to protective security, sabotage by an attacker could paralyse the country, which means that military defence efforts would be at a disadvantage.

The long-lasting pandemic has also affected threats and vulnerabilities, for instance by increasing polarisation in society, and given rise to conspiracy theories, which hostile states as well as violent extremists are exploiting. This development puts Sweden’s security at risk. Harsh rhetoric, polarisation and the spread of conspiracy theories contribute to extremism gaining ground, which in turn helps violent extremism to grow. Once the image of an incapable society has been established, people lose faith, and many no longer see the point of protecting fundamental democratic values.

The Swedish Security Service has noted that an increasing number of individuals find a sense of community online. Digital platforms enable meeting places to be set up for radicalisation, recruitment, planning and calls to commit ideologically motivated crime. Via the internet and social media violent extremists spread hate, manuals on how to manufacture weapons, and direct calls for attacks. This development is most visible in violent right-wing extremism, where virtual communities enable an individually tailored mix of ideologies that to some extent is at odds with the traditional view of ideology and organisational affiliation in violent right-wing extremism.

Digital platforms facilitate participation by younger individuals. The Swedish Security Service can see that an increasing number of young individuals, in many cases minors, are attracted by online-based right-wing extremism. Some of these individuals are suffering from mental health problems. In 2021, several attacks and other acts of violence inspired by violent right-wing extremism and accelerationism (subversive activities) were planned by underage perpetrators who had been radicalised online. This trend is assessed to continue.

Not only violent right-wing extremism, but also violent Islamism, has become increasingly online-based and transnational. All this leads to extremism gaining ground. We constantly note new actors in our information flow, and individuals from various parts of the violent extremist scene continue to pose an attack threat, and a threat to the constitutional order. The number of individuals assessed to pose a security threat is increasing, as is the number of expulsion orders issued as a result of this. As only a very small proportion of expulsion orders can be enforced, the security threat keeps growing. This is a challenge to our Service.

Our remit is to protect Sweden and secure a future for democracy. We usually say that for us, the most important incidents are the ones that never happen. That is why we, together with others, avert threats to Sweden’s security and to our citizens’ rights and freedoms. We protect the central government and Sweden’s secrets. This is also a focal area in safeguarding the upcoming parliamentary election this autumn. Efforts to this end began already in the autumn of 2019, in cooperation with several other government agencies. What the nature of the threat to the election and our protectees in central government will be depends, for instance, on which path society takes and which issues are on the table.

A few years ago, more stringent protective security legislation was introduced, and the Swedish Security Service is one of the government agencies that was given a wider remit in this context. More stringent legislation is a good thing, as legislation had not kept pace with the changing threat, which had led to the gap between threats and security growing wider. While much good work is being done, remaining protective security risks give cause for concern. Also, due to the pandemic, the changing global situation and the ongoing strengthening of total defence, more sectors could now be considered critical assets.

Another area where legislation has not kept pace with developments is information gathering. The information society, with its ever-increasing online activities, poses a challenge to our Service in our efforts to avert threats to Sweden’s national security and to the rights and freedoms of our citizens. Our ability to detect and prevent threats concealed in the growing information flow depends not only on our Service continuing to invest in technology development, but also on adopting a whole new approach to the access to and processing of information. Our Service is focused on technology development in close cooperation with our various functions, but countering the security threat to Sweden requires modern data protection and information handling legislation to ensure and safeguard privacy rights.

The Swedish Security Service has already pointed to the need for a collective national effort by all policy areas concerned to create the robust and sustainable protection Sweden needs. More stakeholders need to get involved in countering the threat posed by hostile states and violent extremists. Close, daily cooperation with several government agencies, including the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA), the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MUST), the Police Authority and the Prosecution Authority, is a cornerstone in our efforts to protect Sweden. We also work closely with a number of government agency partners in the National Cyber Security Centre, and with security and intelligence services of other countries.

Our long-term, determined efforts serve to ensure that what must not happen does not happen. With the current state of affairs in the world, our mission has never been more important. Swedish society and values are being challenged daily, as hostile states and violent extremists try to destabilise democracy through pressure, influence operations, disinformation, strategic acquisitions, espionage and physical attacks. To help create resilience, efforts are needed across society to lay the foundations for a more secure Sweden.

Charlotte von Essen

Last Modified

 15 June 2022

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Charlotte von Essen

Mrs von Essen is Head of the Swedish Security Service, a post she has held since 1 October 2021. Prior to this, she was Deputy Head of the Service from May 2017. She also has comprehensive experience of the judicial system, with her background as an assessor at the Stockholm Administrative Court of Appeal, Head of the Uppsala Administrative Court, and Director General for Legal Affairs at the Swedish Ministry of Justice.


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