“This is a very interesting lead, the question is whether the authorities are onto it yet or not,” says terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish Defence University.
In the months before the attack on Stockholm’s Drottninggatan street the suspected attacker Rakhmat Akilov was active on social media, where he has links to extremist networks. Swedish Radio News, known in Swedish as Ekot, has followed the trail and can reveal that it leads to an extremist jihadist leader.
The setting is the Russian social media website Odnoklassniki, where several Uzbek jihadist accounts spread Islamist propaganda in the months before the attack in Stockholm. The propaganda was collected by an anonymous account that added Rakhmat Akilov as a friend. In that way the Uzbek suspected of the Stockholm attack could access the propaganda.
The material consisted of sermons supporting violent struggle, bloody images from bomb attacks and links to an Uzbek language extremist training website. The instructions on that site included videos showing how to use various weapons.
During Swedish Radio’s work tracing these links Ekot has come into contact with an open source intelligence analyst. For security reasons he goes by the pseudonym Alex Bronstein.
Among other things, he provides information on how extremists use religious Odnoklassniki accounts as go-betweens to connect violent jihadists and possible recruits – especially focusing on Central Asian migrant workers like Rakhmat Akilov. This is something that Ekot has been able to confirm from other sources.
The propaganda in the network that Ekot has looked at keeps leading back to a person who calls himself “Abu Saloh”. This is the highest leader of an Uzbek Islamist group fighting in Syria, with links to Al Qaida.
“This is definitely interesting, partly because it shows there might be a connection there; that has to be investigated. But it also demonstrates what an important role social media plays,” says terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp.
And Abu Saloh is not just any extremist leader. He is wanted by Interpol on suspicion of crimes including terrorism act and terror financing. He is suspected of having enabled a suicide attack in Kyrgyzstan last year.
But there are also more recent suspicions linking him to terrorism. Just four days before the truck attack in Stockholm a suicide bomber struck the Metro system in Saint Petersburg. The Russian website Gazeta.ru spoke to a source within the police and security service who said that the suspected organiser of the attack is none other than Abu Saloh.
This aspect of the Russian investigation is not something that Swedish Radio Ekot can confirm. But the extremist network that suspected attacker Rakhmat Akilov can be connected to, via social media, can be traced to the same jihadist leader: Abu Saloh.
Ekot cannot say whether Akilov communicated with extremists in this social media network. Several times people referred to closed conversations using the Telegram app, which is hidden from us.
Suspected truck attacker Rakhmat Akilov is not the only person in Sweden who can be connected to the jihadist network on Odnoklassniki. Among the participating accounts are ones belonging to people who say they are from Sweden, or live in Sweden today. At least one of them poses in a picture with an extremist group involved in armed conflict.
And the account on Odnoklassniki for Abu Saloh has under the “family” tab listed two brothers. One of them says he lives in Stockholm.
These links are interesting because the question of whether self-confessed attacker Rakhmat Akilov acted alone or had help is not yet answered, says terrorism researcher Magnus Ranstorp.
“I think that we start by seeing, who is in Sweden, and then join up the international parts of this. And this is undeniably an interesting lead,” says Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish Defence University.