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.