Sweden is a peaceful democratic state that has long been a safe haven for those fleeing conflict. Yet many young people whose families took refuge there are now turning their back on the country. More than 300 people have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, making Sweden per capita one of the biggest exporters of jihadists in Europe.
By – Yalda Hakim
I meet a young woman in the basement of a building in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city. She seems like any other young Western woman, wearing tight clothing and make-up. But she has recently returned from Raqqa in Syria, where her husband died fighting for the so-called Islamic State.
She recalls some of the horrors she witnessed there. The sound of Yazidi women being raped in the room next to hers; offenders being lashed and executed; the constant bombardment and airstrikes – all part of the daily life of a jihadi bride.
To begin with, it had seemed more appealing – she had been glad to be there. But after her husband died she began to notice things that were alien to the religion she had been brought up in.
“When they burned the Jordanian pilot I asked them why they burn up a human being. Is that right in Islam? What I know is that you are not allowed to burn anyone.”
With the help of another IS fighter, she managed to get smuggled out of Syria, across the border to Turkey before flying back to Sweden. She shows me pictures of her Kalashnikov and her injured daughter, her face covered with shrapnel wounds.
Why did she decide to join IS, I ask?
“When you go this way you don’t think about the worldly life. Like I can have a good bed. You don’t care about these things. You just think about the fastest way I can die and go to heaven.”
After the interview I drop her off on the outskirts of the city. Driving away, I notice her playing with a stray cat – looking just like any other shy young girl.
Gothenburg is where much of the recruitment for jihad is taking place. With a population of just over half a million, this port city and former industrial powerhouse has seen at least 100 men and women leave to join militants fighting for the proclaimed caliphate.
It’s one of Sweden’s most diverse cities. A third of the population are from immigrant backgrounds, many of them Muslim, and in the north-eastern suburb of Angered, the proportion rises to more than 70%.
Sweden’s massive housing shortage and long waits for rent controlled apartments in the centre of town mean that many new arrivals end up here, and stay here. This includes some of the 160,000 people who sought asylum in Sweden last year.
Angered has become a tough area to police.
Parts of it are classified as “vulnerable”, which in Swedish police terminology indicates a breakdown of law and order, among other things, and the emergence of a parallel society.
I am told that religious enforcers attempt to control the community to ensure Sharia law is adhered to. They allegedly harass and intimidate people – mainly women – for the way they dress and for attending parties where there is music and dancing, which they consider haram.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of children have dropped out of school by the time they are 15, and unemployment is 11% – high by Swedish standards. It’s these vulnerable young people that the extremists target.
One softly spoken young man – who I will call Imran – told me hardline recruiters were manipulating young people who had lost their way, and encouraging them to join IS.
“Like a big brother will say to you, like a father will say to you, ‘Stop doing drugs, stop hitting people. Come with us instead. Fight for God. Fight for Allah. Fight for your freedom of the Muslims. The Muslim people are being killed and raped. You are wasting your life. You don’t get nothing from the Swedish people.’
“This guy has been a criminal just like me and done a lot of bad stuff. And now he is coming to me and telling me, ‘You have to change.'”
Imran was initially eager to travel to the Middle East and join IS. But after seeing videos and photographs of their brutality he says he is now afraid, and wants to build a life for himself in Sweden instead.
Suburbs like Angered have become pressure cookers of discontent.
You see this built-up resentment mainly with the second-generation “non-ethnic Swedes”, as they’re known here.
Many of their parents fled war-torn countries in search of safety and found it in Sweden. They appear grateful for what the country has offered them. Their children, however, often feel they’ve been discriminated against and left out of the system. Many young people I spoke to said they felt disconnected from the country where their parents came from – but didn’t eel they were Swedish either.
The issues here have been further compounded by the sudden influx of refugees fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq. Accepting refugees is part of what it means to be Swedish. Last year alone, Sweden accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country.
Ulf Bostrom, a veteran Gothenburg policeman who has become Sweden’s only “integration officer”, puts part of the blame for the problems the city now faces on police cutbacks.
“We have lost more than 50% of the policemen working in uniform in the different areas – 50%,” he says. “You can see for yourself. How many policemen have you seen during your time here in the areas you have been to? Have you seen any?” No, I reply.
Bostrom himself, however, is a well-known figure in Gothenburg‘s suburbs and spends most of his time building trust and engaging with the migrant community and different faith groups.
He took me to the Bellevue mosque on the outskirts of Gothenburg, which is reported to have ties to various Islamist and terrorist-designated organisations. Many of the people who have gone to Syria and Iraq have had connections here, and spiritual leader of al-Shabaab, Hassan Hussein, visited in 2009.
Later I attended Friday prayer at Angered’s largest mosque where about 500 worshippers had gathered. The imam, who came to Sweden from Syria three years ago, urged them to respect Swedish laws and customs and to assimilate as much as they could into mainstream society. But I was told that on one occasion two men stood up and verbally attacked him for condemning extremism, before they were escorted out. Just another indication of how divided and polarised these communities are.
What has happened to Swedes who have travelled to Iraq and Syria, I ask Bostrom.
“Well there is a number of 311 or so but none who have come back have been arrested. I think our terrorism law is not functioning well enough,” he says.
Only in April was the law changed to make it illegal to travel abroad with the intention to commit acts of terrorism.
Klas Friberg, the regional police chief and Ulf Bostrom’s boss, says the authorities are aware of the problems they face, and know that security needs to be improved in areas where parallel societies have taken shape.
But the reality is that right now young people from immigrant backgrounds are being radicalised.
Why would someone raised in Gothenburg want to leave one of the most peaceful and progressive countries in the developed world to join a violent extremist group in the Middle East?
With so many of them saying they don’t feel Swedish, perhaps the bigger question is: has integration and Sweden’s experiment with multiculturalism failed?