‘Why all of Sweden needs to fight extremism’

Sweden's national coordinator against violent extremism, Mona Sahlin, argues that all parts of Sweden must join the fight against terror.

'Why all of Sweden needs to fight extremism'
Mona Sahlin. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

A 23-year-old young man, raised in central Rosengård in Malmö, is under arrest in Brussels on suspicion of being involved in the horrendous terrorist attacks on March 22nd.

Three hundred Swedes have travelled to Syria and Iraq to commit acts of terror. Most of them have been recruited by the terrorist cult Daesh. Several of these young people have thus made the final journey of their life. They have been killed in the hope of a one-way ticket to paradise. Others seem to have been given other jobs, such as committing acts of terror in Europe.

The effect of such acts was all too clear in Paris and Brussels. It's the democratic society, our self-evident freedoms and rights, that are the target. The attacks are directed against our heart, in the sense that we should be afraid and experience the same horrors as the civilian populations in Syria and Iraq. No one is safe.

But violent extremism is not just about jihadism. On October 22nd last year a 22-year-old young man – dressed as a dark lord and with his sabre raised – marched into the Kronan school in Trollhättan to chop down students and and teachers of undesirable skin colours. It was already too late then.

Violent extremism also includes right-wing extremism. The so-called white power movement is very active in Sweden. The Swedish Resistance Movement [Svenska motståndsrörelsen] is a disturbing example of how a neo-Nazi organization has claimed seats in local authorities in Ludvika and Borlänge. They exploit and amplify fears and provoke people by patrolling the streets as so-called 'security guards'. They want to confront, create a polarized society and increase Islamophobia.

Many of our society's measures are reactive and respond when something has already happened, when a young person has already stepped over legal and moral lines. But the work must start long before catastrophes for individuals and society occur. That work must start in daily life, in school, at youth centres, in civil society, with youth psychiatrics, social services in people's home towns. It's about seeing the signals and being brave enough to act. To be able to act, the various parts of society have to organize, create structures where there are none, both locally and nationally.

Tributes after last year's far-right attack on Kronan school in Trollhättan. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

My role as a national coordinator against violent extremism is the most important job I have ever had. It has been, and is, a mission which in essence is about increasing knowledge at a local level, coordinating with authorities and making sure that civil society collaboration gets started.

We have visited practically all of Sweden's municipalities over the past two years. We have met hundreds of council and state officials, politicians, and have taken part in a large number of local and regional conferences and seminars.

The message we have put forward can be summarized into three points:

1. First of all – assess the situation. In what environments do violent Islamist supporters operate? In what contexts can you find right-wing extremists and groups? Are there violent left-wing extremists?

2. Secondly, put together a concrete action plan so that different parts of the local authority know what to do and who should do what. Appoint a coordinator to oversee the whole operation.

3. Thirdly, we need local teams with knowledge and ability to act, above all locally, but with national support. We cannot have a situation where we are powerless to act against individuals and groups who can cause great damage to our society. Nobody should be able to hide behind ignorance or cowardice.

We have also pointed out the importance of families having the confidence to get in touch if they realize that a young person has been radicalized. The first to notice are the people close to them. The national support hotline we started together with the Red Cross at the end of 2015 shows a clear need for this. It's not just relatives who call to talk and get advice. Teachers and youth workers also contact us with questions and concerns.

Gothenburg, Stockholm, Örebro and Borlänge are today four councils who are taking violent extremism very seriously. They are part of one of our pilot projects. In these municipalities there are already special coordinators and a coherent action plan. If a person chooses to leave an extremist group there is experience from dealing with similar areas in other environments. More and more help for individuals who want a way out of violent extremism is being made available. This is pleasing, but in other municipalities there is still a lot of work to be done.

A total of 208 of Sweden's 290 local authorities replied to a survey we recently carried out. One fourth of the municipalities said that violent extremism existed there. They said that right-wing extremism was the most common, closely followed by Islamist extremism.

Almost half of all municipalities have not assessed the situation as above. Just as many say that they have carried out some kind of assessment but do not have it on paper. Only seven percent have a completed action plan, 28 percent of the councils have just started working on an action plan, and a third of Sweden's municipalities have not even started looking at preparing a plan to counter extremism.

The survey gives food for thought. Behind the numbers are young people who are pulled onto political as well as religious radical paths and at a given occasion cross the line, leave our democratic society behind and choose to be radicalized to a degree where they see mindless violence and terror as the only way out.

Extremism in Europe is becoming increasingly borderless. This is the case in Sweden too – recruiters are travelling the length and breadth of our country. Extremism knows no regional or local boundaries, that's why all 290 councils, agencies and the state have to take part, nobody can shirk responsibility.

Would it have been possible to stop the detained 23-year-old before he, via Syria, chose to take part in the merciless attacks in Brussels?

Would it have been possible to stop the young 20-year-old from northern Stockholm – who has been accused of terrorist crimes?

Would it have been possible to stop the 22-year-old in Trollhättan before he decided to stab teachers and pupils to death?

I believe it would have been possible. It has to be possible.

This is a translated version of an article written by the national coordinator against violent extremism, Mona Sahlin, and first published by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.