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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Do Stabbing Attacks Constitute Terrorism?

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Palestinians, Terrorism

In a curious attempt at legal acrobatics and apologetics,  Swedish Prime Minster Stefan Löfven, while attempting to support Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s recent accusations against Israel for extrajudicial killings of Palestinian terrorists who stabbed Israeli citizens, has claimed that such knife attacks cannot really be considered terrorism.1

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven with Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven with Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs

On the issue of stabbing, he is quoted on December 7, 2015 by the Swedish news agency TT as declaring: “No, it is not classified as that. There is an international classification when it is, or is not. What I know is not classified as terrorism.”

In trying to clarify this strange and somewhat disjointed comment, he later said, “It is not clear whether these knife attacks have been organized by some classified terrorist organization. But organized attacks are precisely acts of terrorism.”

Later in the day, Löfven contacted TT again to clarify his message, fearing what he called a “misunderstanding.”

“I meant that it was unclear if the knife attacks are organized by a group classified as a terrorist organization,” Löfven told the agency. “Nonetheless, the attacks themselves do constitute terror.”

The initial comments of Sweden’s prime minister were understood by many to declare that a stabbing that is not organized or carried out within the framework of a classified terror organization is simply not terrorism.

The Official Definition of Terrorism

While somewhat envious of the ability of Sweden’s prime minister to sit from afar in a relatively safe, Scandinavian terror-free haven and to virtuously pontificate on what is, or is not terror, and whether Israel is or is not entitled to deal with it, there is nevertheless a need to set the record straight as regards terrorism.

  • There is no such classification of terror organizations or specific acts of terror.
  • International law and practice, as set out in numerous binding Security Council resolutions and international declarations — supported by Sweden — clearly set out the parameters and classifications of terrorism.2
  • Such instruments consistently condemn in the strongest terms all acts of terrorism irrespective of their motivation, whenever and by whomsoever committed, as one of the most serious threats to peace and security.
  • They declare as unjustifiable all criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act, which constitute offenses within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.
  • They instruct states to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.

It is curious to note that Sweden recently adopted a “New Swedish strategy against terrorism”3 as presented to the Swedish parliament by its minister for home affairs on August 28, 2015.

This strategy states:

Terrorism threatens international peace and security, national security and our fundamental rights and freedoms. Every year, numerous terrorist attacks are carried out around the world. Recent years have seen a sharp increase in problems related to foreign terrorist fighters and there is presently no indication that this trend will abate.

The strategy sets the goal of all counter-terrorism activities – to keep terrorist attacks from being carried out, including a specific reference for the need to prevent terror through influencing “the intent of indi­viduals to commit or support terrorist crime”.

Clearly, stabbing attacks by individuals – even against Israelis – would enter within the need, as set out in the Swedish strategy against terrorism, to “Prevent, Preempt and Protect against such terror.”

Why did the Swedish leadership, while acknowledging the need to prevent individuals from carrying out acts of terror, nevertheless appear to have maintained such a blatant double-standard in denying that knife attacks by individuals against Israeli citizens could be acts of terror?

While any prime minister and foreign minister are human and may even make mistakes, one might assume that in any efficient governmental system, statements on major issues of a legal nature issued by senior governmental representatives, regarding actions of friendly states, would be based on accurate knowledge and awareness of the legal principles involved and devoid of partisan double-standards.  It appears the Swedish government may be taking a crash course on these anti-terrorist principles.


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2 “United Nations Action to Counter Terrorism – International Legal Instruments,” United Nations,