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.
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.