STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden, once cited by Osama bin Laden as the kind of country al Qaeda did not attack, is facing a rising threat from Islamist militants because of the crises in Iraq and Syria, its spy chief said in an interview on Friday.
Anders Thornberg told Reuters the number of Swedes traveling to fight in those countries had tripled in the past year, and record immigration to the Nordic country was making it vulnerable to infiltrators from militant groups.
Expanding on comments in the security services' annual report last week, he also said Russian espionage had stepped up since the Ukraine crisis: one in three Russian diplomats in Sweden were operating as spies, and there were signs of "war planning" from Moscow to test the country's defenses.
Sweden's traditional neutrality was long seen as shielding it from militant threats, as acknowledged by al Qaeda leader bin Laden in a speech in 2004. But in recent years it has contributed to military missions in Afghanistan and Mali, both Muslim countries.
Thornberg, head of the SAPO security police, said there were far more radicalized Swedes involved in Syria and Iraq over the past two years than in the previous 10 years of other insurgent campaigns.
"We can see some unholy alliances," he told Reuters. "Before we had terrorists from North Africa, from Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan. But now all these groups that were divided before have a common cause in going to Syria and Iraq."
Security services across Europe are troubled by the flow of jihadists to Iraq and Syria and the risk that some will come back home and seek to carry out attacks.
Last month, police in neighboring Denmark shot dead a 22-year-old gunman after he killed two people at a Copenhagen synagogue and an event promoting free speech. In January, Islamist militants killed 17 people in France.
A botched suicide bomb attack four years ago in Stockholm, and the conviction in 2012 of three Swedes for plotting to kill people at a Danish newspaper in revenge for its publication in of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, have shown Sweden is not immune to attacks.
The SAPO head said about 300 Swedes had traveled from Sweden to Syria and Iraq to fight in groups linked to al Qaeda or Islamic State, of whom around 35 had been killed. Around 80 had returned to Sweden. At last one militant returned to Sweden for hospital treatment before returning to the battlefield.
"Some of the returnees are a sort of local heroes. They have a high status when they come back here and maybe they can influence some people to travel," Thornberg said.
He added that record numbers of asylum seekers from Iraq and Syria - the Swedish Migration Agency expects 90,000 this year - added to the problems of a security service struggling with resources.
"Another threat is through the currents of refugees. We are a generous country, we should be that, but a few people try to misuse the system ... to commit terrorist attacks."
Thornberg said Sweden had seen increased Russian intelligence activity in the country since the Ukraine crisis.
"The services are active in trying to get information about Swedish defense, defense employees – they are also doing some sort of war planning in Sweden, looking into different sites to see how well we can defend ourselves," the spy chief added.
Thornberg said that while he did not think Russia would start any war with Sweden, its intelligence services were involved in "war planning", such as checking on the country's harbors and the best roads for transporting heavy vehicles.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan