Same Roots And Cures For Neo-Nazis And Jihadists

As white supremacists proliferate in Sweden, a reformed neo-Nazi has been dissuading youths from following his own former path. Now he's trying to stem growing Islamic radicalism.

The neo-Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement demonstrating in Stockholm.
The neo-Nazi Swedish Resistance Movement demonstrating in Stockholm.
Monica Perosino

STOCKHOLM — Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, some 40,000 refugees have arrived in Sweden. Because the government decided to offer residence permits to every Syrian who requests one, it's estimated that by the end of 2014 another 80,000 will have come.

Unofficial sources calculate that the population of foreigners residing in the Nordic nation is about 16%, although precise demographic statistics based on ethnicity are not available.

The Swedish Democrats — the extreme-right xenophobic party that has come to be known as a "reformed Nazi group" — were previously alone in regarding immigration as a "problem" for the nation. But since the country's Sept. 14 elections, they have become the country's third-largest political force.

Sabah Mamoon was born in Aleppo, Syria, 34 years ago. He works in a pizza-kebab takeaway near Kärrtorp, the suburb outside the capital where a neo-Nazi white power group called the Swedish Resistance Movement attacked a polling booth after the elections. It's also where, a few months earlier, anti-racism demonstrators were attacked by 30 or so of the group's members, who were armed with knives and makeshift shields.

Approximately 25% of Kärrtorp's population is of foreign origin, and "there are very few "normal Swedes,"" says Mamoon. "The rest are white supremacists — people who want us dead. And now, with the Islamic State group ISIS, they have a good reason. If you're an Arab, you're a terrorist."

Leaving a mark

Nearly every evening, Mamoon receives a visit while he's working. "They ask me, "You're still here? When are you leaving?" Then, if there's nobody else in the store, they stand outside and do the Nazi salute. Sometimes they yell "Heil Hitler." Other times, they gesture slitting my throat, laughing and staring at me."

Mamoon is a gentle young man, and by now, this has happened so many times it has left its mark on him. The tension in Kärrtorp — as in dozens of other Swedish cities and suburbs — is sky-high, especially after the electoral success of the far-right.

"I wonder when the first racist murders will happen here, and what could be done about it, because the anger is at tipping point," he says.

Robert Örell has spent the past few years of his life avoiding exactly this rage. He works for the Swedish branch of an organization called Exit that helps neo-Nazis escape from white supremacism, the movement born in the U.S. in 1966 that holds the Aryan race superior. Today, in Sweden alone, there are some 30 parties and groups espousing such ideas.

In the 14 years of its existence, Exit has helped 700 leave this violent cycle. And, for the past year now, the association has been working on a project that helps young Swedish people being recruited or involved with jihad.

"All our work consists of de-radicalization," Örell says with a smile, as he sips black coffee on the terrace of Exit's office in the Hammarby district of Stockholm. "Violent extremism feeds on anger and frustration, which allows someone who feels they don't belong, that they're a failure, or that they're excluded to feel like they have roots. We want to get rid of this hate," he adds.

Real-world experience

This isn't just theory. Örell knows exactly what the kids he rescues are feeling. "I used to be a neo-Nazi," he says. "For five years, I was a member of a white supremacist movement." Brawls on the streets, vandalism, punishment campaigns. It's difficult to imagine that this smiling 30-something, so gentle and sedate, has such a past.

There are plenty of reasons that "normal" kids become violent, xenophobic fanatics. For Örell it was because he was a "loser" in school. "I never did well. The group made me believe that I was superior, they welcomed me and channeled my anger," he says. "They were able to give explanations to the wrongs and injustices polarizing the world. Us and them. Right and wrong." The best candidates for groups like this are the weakest: victims of bullying or marginalization, with difficult family situations — perfect for brainwashing.

Islamic extremism works in exactly the same way. According to SÄPO, Sweden's intelligence agency, the number of jihadists who have left Sweden to go fight with groups allied with ISIS has multiplied since the summer of 2012. Some of them stayed, some of them have returned. Others, instead, have tried to recruit and plan "a European terror strategy."

There were 100 of these jihadists two years ago, "but now there are many more, and the alert is high," says a source from SÄPO, which has foiled two plots on Swedish soil in the past few months.

The jihadists are recruited through relatives and friends, exactly like the 3,000 ultra-right extremists monitored by SÄPO. "But the kids with healthy social networks, solid families, and interests and passions," explains Örell, "rarely become violent." Often, Exit's "cure" begins with a phone call from parents worried about their child's behavior.

Exit's team of therapists and social workers, many of them ex-Nazis like Örell, begin by putting together a "resource map" for the subject: what kind of person are they, what are theire weaknesses and abilities, whether they have social relationships outside of the group. As soon as cracks appear in the fanaticism, they look for contact, at first indirectly, and then with meetings and interviews, then new friends and hobbies. The group's success rate is 93%.

The new challenge is to apply the intervention method toward a different form of hate, the one destined for jihad.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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