HELSINKI (AP) — The knife attack in western Finland that left two people dead and seven others wounded is “a likely terror act,” Finland’s intelligence agency said Saturday, while police said Europol was investigating if it had any ties to deadly vehicle attacks in Spain.
The suspect — an 18-year-old Moroccan asylum-seeker — was shot and wounded in the thigh by police during his rampage Friday in the city of Turku. He was hospitalized under guard — still in intensive care Saturday — and is being investigated for murder with possible terrorist intent, police said.
His name has not been released but investigators say he came to Finland in early 2016 seeking asylum.
“It’s likely at this moment that we’re dealing with a terror attack,” intelligence agency investigator Pekka Hiltunen said, adding that it was investigating the suspect’s connections to the Islamic State group, since IS “has previously encouraged this kind of behavior.”
The agency however did not change the country’s threat assessment following the Friday attack.
Crista Granroth of the National Bureau of Investigation said the suspect’s attack was very focused.
“We think the attacker was going after women,” Granroth said, adding that one man was slashed with the knife when he tried to stand between the attacker and a woman.
The suspect has yet to be questioned, while four others, also Moroccans living in Turku who know him, were detained on suspicion of involvement. An international arrest warrant had been issued for a sixth person, police said, declining to elaborate.
The two dead were Finnish women, while the seven wounded included four Finns, and one Italian, one Briton and one Swedish man. Two of the wounded were still in intensive care. The youngest victim was 15, the oldest 67, police said.
Prime Minister Juha Sipila told a news conference that if confirmed as an act of terrorism, “it’s the first time Finland has encountered such a terror act.”
“Finland is not an island,” he said. “We have feared something like this but we have been prepared,” Sipila said, called the attack “a cowardly act.”
Sipila told reporters he had spoken with several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about the attack.
The NBI said investigators were working with colleagues from the Finnish Security Intelligence Service, police in Turku and the European Union’s police agency, Europol. Robin Lardot, head of the NBI, said Europol was helping to check whether there are connections to the vehicle attacks in Barcelona but refused to elaborate.
The Swedish security service said it was helping its Finnish colleagues.
In June, the Finnish Security Intelligence Service raised its threat assessment to the second level of a four-step scale, citing the Nordic country’s “stronger profile within the radical Islamist propaganda.” Finland was now considered part of the coalition against the Islamic State group, it said.
A man from Sweden who was stabbed in the arm had tried to help another victim who died.
“I tried to stop the violent bleeding from her throat … The woman was so badly injured that she died in my arms,” Hassan Zubier told the Expressen tabloid.
The Ilta-Sanomat tabloid said one of the dead was a local Jehovah’s Witness who was handing out leaflets at a central Turku square. The religious group told the tabloid they believed the woman was randomly attacked.
Flowers and candles were placed on a square in Turku, and Finnish flags flew at half-staff across the country.
“We need to stick together now, hate is not to be answered by hate,” Sipila, the prime minister, said in a tweet. A minute of silence was planned for Sunday at 10 a.m.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, wrote on Twitter that “Europeans stand with #Turku and called it “another cowardly terrorist attack on innocents.”
Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed.