Per Kårehed for Al Jazeera America

Sweden struggles to stop radicalization at home

As Swedish nationals continue to join ISIL, the country’s commitment to social democracy is under strain

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — The first amplified call to prayer in Sweden was not publicly broadcast until 2013, when it reverberated out from a minaret of the Fittja Mosque in southwestern Stockholm on a Friday morning. In the run-up to that historic moment, local Muslims faced a wide range of opposition, including accusations that the azan violated noise regulations and claims from the far right that broadcasting the call amounted to disseminating Islamic propaganda. While Sweden is deeply attached to its reputation as a democratic, secular, humanitarian superpower — having provided safe haven for refugees from Chile’s Pinochet regime, secular leftists fleeing Iran’s Islamic revolution and a massive influx of Syrians and Afghans escaping their present crises — historically speaking, Sweden’s experience of other cultures and religions is still in its infancy. In the 1970s and ’80s, Swedes spoke in terms of assimilation (a term they have since updated to “integration”) and its companion concept, mångfald, roughly equivalent to “diversity.” Sweden’s dedication to mångfald is promoted in work and employment opportunities and lauded in the country’s daily papers. Yet while equal opportunity exists in theory, many of Sweden’s immigrants feel a pervasive sense of societal exclusion.

Gothenburg, a port city and former industrial powerhouse on Sweden’s rain-swept west coast, is probably most comparable to Seattle or Baltimore. In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis, its world-class shipbuilding, ball bearing and automobile industries fell into decline, leaving behind a burned-out landscape of factories and warehouses that in the late 1990s began to be reimagined as a gritty hub for the creative class. Today, Gothenburg is one of Sweden’s most diverse cities, its working-class heritage celebrated in a new much-vaunted Volvo commercial that portrays immigrant residents going about their early morning rituals before heading in to the assembly plant — mångfald, equal opportunity, a new Gothenburg, for everybody.

The northern neighborhood of Gårdsten is home to many of Gothenburg’s immigrants.
Per Kårehed for Al Jazeera America

In reality, the city’s experience of integration has been more complex. While about a third of the city’s population consists of non-ethnic Swedes, as people from immigrant backgrounds are called, nearly 80 percent of them, including some of the 160,000 asylum seekers who arrived Sweden last year, live in the northeastern suburbs of Angered and Bergsjön as well as nearby Backa and Biskopsgården. Sweden’s massive housing shortage and years-long waits for rent-controlled apartments near the center of town mean that many immigrants start in and stay in these outlying neighborhoods, where residents are subject to more frequent gang violence, worse schools, longer commutes and discrimination in job placement. “We have a divided picture. You have certain people getting the top jobs, the best education, but then you have another group who are left over, so to speak,” said Zan Jankovski, a longtime social worker in the suburbs and the Gothenburg coordinator for the National Center Against Violent Extremism.

These northern neighborhoods have supplied the highest percentage of ISIL foreign fighters per capita in all of Sweden and perhaps in all of Western Europe. Though Sweden’s national security agency, the SAPO, officially estimated that 299 Swedish nationals have traveled to fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the actual number is widely suspected to be higher. As it stands, the official figure makes Sweden the second-largest per capita supplier of foreign fighters in Europe, just behind Belgium. (Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood was a known hot spot for ISIL recruiting before it was the focus of an enormous manhunt after the Paris attacks in November.) By way of comparison, an estimated 250 foreign fighters have come from the U.S., which has a population more than 30 times Sweden’s.

“As a city, I think we were caught by surprise by the numbers going down there to fight,” said Jankovski. Groups of young Swedes started leaving Angered and Bergsjön as early as 2012, joining factions affiliated with Free Syrian Army. In 2013, he said, the neighborhoods started to feel the first effects of combat deaths. “If you’re a young man in Angered and you die in combat in Syria, everybody knows … both people who like it and people who don’t.” The following year, he said, ISIL started to gain popularity. “Our social workers started to notice more and more young people talking about ISIL. ISIL was the winning team. They were fighting for good things. In the youth centers, we saw IS flags were being downloaded. Some of the young people had [Anwar] al-Awlaki speeches on their phones.” Many of the Swedish nationals killed while fighting in Syria were honored on Facebook as martyrs and portrayed as role models.

Last February, Sweden’s national job agency dismissed its staff of migration resettlement assistants after it began to suspect that some of them were doubling as ISIL recruiters.

Sweden and Gothenburg in particular are now reckoning with this problem. “Most people who go fight with ISIL from Malmö, Stockholm or other cities in Sweden arrange their travel with people from Gothenburg,” said Karwan Faraj, a longtime Angered youth organizer. “The reason is that there are a few big families here in Gothenburg who have good networks down in Syria with these groups — sons, cousins, nephews, relatives already down there fighting. Gothenburg is the strongest base for these recruiting networks.” But the foreign fighter issue, isn’t just a local one: Last February, Sweden’s national job agency dismissed its staff of migration resettlement assistants after it began to suspect that some of them were doubling as ISIL recruiters. In late November, Sweden’s prime minister admitted that the country had been “naive” about domestic threats and its foreign fighter problem.

The absence of a law prohibiting people from fighting for armed groups abroad has meant that many people have traveled, fought and returned to Sweden, like Michael Skråmo, a blond Islamic convert from Gothenburg who returned from Syria to late last fall in order to pick up his wife and four children before heading back. One local journalist said that a common joke in the Gothenburg suburbs is that if you live with your parents and want a job and your own apartment, you should go to Syria and fight for half a year, then return to Sweden — the implication being that returning fighters are fast-tracked at the jobs and housing agencies. Yassin Ekhdahl, the committee secretary of the National Center Against Violent Extremism, denied that any such fast-tracking exists but says returning fighters are given “coordinated support” and suggested that they might be “traumatized” and dealing with “stigma, shame and guilt.”

“I think in some groups around Gothenburg, they have this idea that ‘We can do whatever we want, no one can catch us, they can’t sentence us,’” Jankovski said. In December, Sweden concluded its first foreign terrorism case: Hassan al-Mandlawi and Al-Amin Sultan, Swedish nationals from Gothenburg, were sentenced to life in prison for a beheading and a separate murder they allegedly committed while fighting with an ISIL-affiliated group in Syria. The key evidence in the case, pictures and videos saved on a USB stick, were discovered during a drug raid in Gothenburg.

Despite the trial, ISIL’s pull in Sweden has not shown signs of abating. Earlier this month, a known Swedish Islamic fighter from the Gothenburg area who had just been released early from prison was arrested in Greece en route to Syria. In mid-February, five Swedes appeared in an ISIL video announcing the death of 20-year-old Anas Khsassi from Angered. The Swedish paper Expressen reported that his 17-year-old brother, Abdelkarim Khsassi, was killed in 2014 while fighting with ISIL.

Like many other European countries watching their youths run away to join ISIL, Sweden is basically fumbling in the dark for ways to intervene in what is often obliquely described as the radicalization process.

From the ground up

“There are 550,000 people in Gothenburg, and we are the city that has the most ISIL fighters. How come? Because we have different centers of very strong Wahhabi leaders and they work like religious engines,” said Ulf Boström, a middle-aged Swede with twinkling eyes and a mellifluous baritone who left his position as a beat cop in Gothenburg 11 years ago to become Sweden’s only integration police inspector. Now he works in the suburbs and is charged with getting to know the area’s religious leaders, having meaningful conversations with them and stopping problems before they start.

The religious engines to which he referred are the Wahhabi-style religious schools that are heavily concentrated in the northeastern suburbs of Gothenburg — a result of a controversial school voucher program Sweden passed in the early 1990s. The program gave students the option of attending religious and private schools and has been widely blamed for the declining quality of Sweden’s once lauded educational system. In Boström’s office on the second floor of Angered’s podlike police headquarters, Palestinian and Kurdish flags adorned the wall, and a hefty edition of the Quran lay half-buried on his cluttered desk. “The recruiters work 24 hours a day, seven days a week at many places where newcomers and refugees stay and live,” he said.

Ulf Boström, Sweden’s only integration police inspector, whose aim is to help integrate immigrants into the community.
Per Kårehed for Al Jazeera America

In mid-December, he was struggling to find a place to stay for a young homeless Somali boy who has been repeatedly approached by ISIL recruiters. In many ways, Boström is paradigmatic of the Swedish police, who are attached to their reputation as enlightened and restrained good cops and want to avoid racial profiling at all costs. At a weekly lecture he gives to younger officers on integration, he began by saying, “When I first got to Angered, I asked, ‘How the fuck do you integrate immigrants?’ But then the immigrants helped me to integrate.”

After laying out a litany of statistics about the violence of the northeastern suburbs — which he said have the most shootouts and gang violence per capita in Scandinavia — Boström went into a long presentation on the composition of the Quran and the meaning of the hadiths and charted various branches of Islam on a scale of democratic to theocratic. “Not many people believe in God in Sweden. We are kind of secularized. That makes us very weird for the rest of the world,” he said. He tried to break down the profile of a stereotypical recruiter. “These guys have an extreme warmth and compassion. They’re trying to do something good.”

A few days later at a public gathering space in a northern suburb, he gave a lecture on democratic law for 150 prospective asylum seekers, mostly refugees from Syria. “As-salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you), he said walking onstage. “‘Integration’ means “part of.” You are part of your family. You are also part of Sweden.”

What followed was an introduction to Sweden’s government, judiciary and rights. “In many of your countries, there is a lot of crime and corruption and undemocratic systems,” he said at one point. “The right to free speech means I have the possibility to say anything I want about religion or politics or other questions.” He got people up from their seats to act out issues they might encounter in Sweden, such as someone speaking ill of the Prophet Muhammad (“He has the right to speak his mind”), abuse of women (“Democracy starts at home”) and gay marriage (“The Environmental Minister Andreas Carlgren is gay, and he signed a pro-immigration law”).

Boström makes his rounds in the northern neighborhoods of Gothenburg.
Per Kårehed for Al Jazeera America

After the lecture, Boström insisted on taking me around to meet local shop owners. At our first stop, a clearly uncomfortable elderly Arab shopkeeper shook my hand and politely answered questions with a smile. “This neighborhood? Oh, there are so many nationalities here. I like it so very much. Extremist groups like ISIL? They’ve have gone down. People are nice to each other now … but I guess you can’t really tell what hides in a person’s heart.” As soon as we left, Boström nudged me, saying, “See? Gothenburg is a fine place, not so many terrorists. What he didn’t say is that his son spent two or three weeks in the hospital and almost lost an eye after he was beaten by a radical young Islamic person.”

The next place we went was a grocery store run by Arab Christians. When they heard what we wanted, the owners nodded yes, but said they couldn’t speak freely in the store and took us out back. On a loading dock behind the shop, the men railed against what they viewed as a growing number of Islamic extremists in the neighborhood. “You can’t live here as you did before. There are many things to think about. For instance, if you’re Christian, can you show you’re a Christian?” One man jerked his gold crucifix out from under his sweater. “We live in a democratic country, and I can’t show my religious belief. They don’t stand here with machine guns, but you see the way they look at you. We can’t sell pork here anymore.”

The other man, who was from the Middle East and has lived in Sweden for 25 years, said, “It used to be more mixed here in the ’90s. There were more Swedish people living here, and they moved away. Some people I know here agree with ISIL 100 percent. I do business with them every day. They could do something here in Sweden. I lived through war, and now I am so worried, I don’t know where I would take my three kids.”

Standing in the cold, Boström smiled. “See? After a while, the mixed areas become segregated areas. They’ll eventually be segregated by religion, and you’ll have your Christian area and your Muslim area.” Seeming somewhat self-conscious, he asked for my honest view of the Swedish situation. I told him that I admired Sweden’s high-minded, gentle approach to counterterrorism but I also worried that this was being taken advantage of by affiliates of ISIL and could ultimately hurt social democracy. He nodded. “Have you ever heard of Pippi Longstocking? … She says if you’re strong, you have to be kind. They know you have power. You just have to wield power carefully.”

Looking to the future

“I think one of the big problems is that Swedes don’t believe in religion. They think that because they don’t believe in religion, they don’t need to respect religion,” said Faraj, the youth organizer. A peshmerga devotee and a co-author of a novel about the Kurdish-Swedish diaspora, he went with his family to Angered from Kirkuk, Iraq, after the Persian Gulf War. As he walked through a crowded mall in the suburbs, it was clear that he was known and respected, with a number of people pulling him aside to shake hands and chat. In recent years, he has dedicated his time to cataloging and interviewing men and women from Angered who have gone to Syria to fight and live in ISIL territory. “Sweden is open market for recruiting people to ISIL, especially Gothenburg,” he said. “Almost all of the recruits from here were born in Swedish hospitals.” One woman who went on a grim odyssey to ISIL territory before returning home to Gothenburg told him that she was motivated in part by her bad experiences wearing a niqab in Sweden — “people were swearing at her, trying to take it off her head.”

Faraj said that after the Paris attacks and the sentencing of the two Gothenburg men for murder in Syria, somewhat open recruiting has more or less gone silent and has been increasingly hard to penetrate, even for him. “There is no special manual. [People get involved through] social media, friends and relatives who are fighting … There are basement mosques. A lot of people initiate contact with ISIL from their side. Sometimes there are seminars where maybe five guys talk about stuff but not in an open way.” In a similar manner, Boström compared ISIL recruiting to Scientology. “They have their bible at their headquarters, but to read it, you have to be fully in,” he said.

Karwan Faraj has devoted much of his time to interviewing men and women from Angered who have gone to fight in Syria.
Per Kårehed for Al Jazeera America

Nearly everyone I interviewed attributed ISIL’s success recruiting in Sweden to what they describe as social problems — unemployment, discrimination, bad housing policy, high divorce rates and confusion around identity. Yet Jankovski, the National Center Against Violent Extremism coordinator, had trouble accepting this theory. “If you compare Sweden to every country in Europe, we have very few social problems, less poverty, free schooling. How come young people in Gothenburg would want to leave one of the most well organized countries in the world to go down to Raqqa?”

Having grown up in Sweden as an immigrant, Jankovski understood the reality of the immigrant experience in Sweden. “I’m almost 48 years old. I was born here. I speak the language better than any Swede I know. But I’m still searching for an answer. Am I a ‘real’ Swede, or am I something else? We’re wide open to immigration, wide open to cooperate with the whole world. But when it comes to … what you might call the real integration, there are some barriers, I think.”

In April, a law will go into effect in Sweden that will make it a crime to finance or fight with foreign armed groups such as ISIL. The country’s Left Party is opposed to the law, fearing it will heighten scrutiny of people who send money to relatives overseas. The last time I spoke to Boström, he was working late nights and weekends talking to people at mosques and homes for asylum seekers. He was worried that if he didn’t make a difference by midsummer, it “would be too late.”

“Come spring, we will have an additional 140,000 new refugees coming to the cities, where there is already a shortage of 700,000 apartments,” he said. “Where will these young men go? We will in some ways increase our own problem.” He then began to allude to the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party critical of immigration that has benefited from the controversies that have arisen from Sweden’s acceptance of asylum seekers. Recent polls have shown that the Sweden Democrats are the second-most-popular party in the country and the governing Social Democrats are polling at historic lows. Sweden’s Migration Agency has signaled that it could expel nearly half the 160,000 asylum seekers the country took in last year, and with a general election two years away, Sweden’s social democratic legacy seems increasingly fragile. “What is the plan?” Boström lamented. “All the things we are doing with a good heart here are no good if there is one terror attack in Sweden between now and 2018.” 

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