Though only a 40 minute train journey away from Stockholm, Södertälje has a different character to the Swedish capital. With a strong international population, it boasts a science museum that is a favourite in the region, and two football teams founded by immigrants that managed to reach the highest tier in Swedish football. But at the turn of the last decade that was all overshadowed by a turf war over gambling which culminated in 2010 with a string of violent incidents.
Ann Törnkvist's new book “Följ Fucking Order” documents the rise and fall of the biggest gang in the area and its leader, who attempted to have her book derailed just before it was published.
“Fundamentally the Södertälje mafia is no different from any other gang. Their main source of livelihood as far as I saw was as debt enforcers. Mostly they were employed to get money back from people who were having problems paying back their debts,” Törnkvist explained to The Local.
“Around 90,000 people live in Södertälje, and about a third are orthodox Christians from the Middle East, by now in their third generation. They're very successful entrepreneurs and there has been a lot of cash flowing around – some legit, some not. It's a very tight-knit community so for a long time people borrowed money from family and friends, who obviously wouldn't send the mafia to get money back. But people did routinely sell the debts of acquaintances or business partners on to those people, who were young boys, and didn't hesitate to use violence.”
“There was a huge difference between those who we now know to be the Södertälje mafia, called 'the Network', and people who were lending money and getting it back through mediation. That was an established system: you resolved things through the community, they would hold meetings at church and try to find ways to resolve debt – a reasonable rate of payment. But then these young guys move in.”
According to the journalist, Södertälje Network members idolized gangsters from other countries and started to model their behaviour on them. One incident in particular stands out. In July 2010 Assyriska FF footballer Eddie Moussa was shot and killed along with his brother Yaacoub while attending a known gambling club in the city. The incident shocked the country, resembling Colombia in 1994 more than Sweden in 2010.
“Moussa's lawyer points out those parallels with the drug traffickers in Colombia (where footballer Andres Escobar was killed by a drug cartel following the 1994 World Cup). That was very brutal. I had just come home to Sweden after being abroad for 13 years, and I thought to myself, when did we start killing each other with Kalashnikovs?” Törnkvist remembers.
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“What made me interested in writing a book was when it finally went to trial, and the prosecutor talked a lot about the culture and tradition of orthodox Christians. That they have lived for centuries in the Middle East, have been persecuted and are very scarred by genocide, for example. The prosecutor said it was understandable that the group wanted to keep a low profile in Sweden therefore, but because the police were rarely called upon, these young men in gangs just grew more and more powerful. Their hubris became enormous.”
Törnkvist dug deeper, and eventually decided she needed to speak with Bernard Khouri. The head of the Södertälje Network, he was eventually sentenced to life in prison for his role in three murders:
“He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in three cases. In the first case he told a cousin to go and kill a man who belonged to rival gang X-Team (led by Eddie Moussa's brother Dany), who were trying to establish themselves in the city. After that there was an attempted murder a few months later when the X-Team side tried to kill Khouri – who wasn't in the car – and shot and paralyzed his cousin. Many people consider the Moussa double homicide that followed a few months later as a clear act of retribution.”
READ ALSO: A timeline of the Södertälje mafia wars
“When I started, I wrote to Khouri and he immediately granted me an interview. I had a very strong impression at the time, which I've since realized is correct, that I wasn't there to interview him – he was interviewing me. He was asking questions, trying to find a journalist who would show his side of the story to the point where the prosecution would think about withdrawing the charges.”
“I actually started the project thinking he had perhaps not ordered the murders and approached it with an open mind. Over time, the more I spoke to people, I became 90 percent sure he did. I can't be completely sure – I'm not a lawyer, prosecutor of judge, but there's not the enormous benefit of the doubt I gave him at the beginning.”
Ann Törnkvist. Photo: Mondial
When Khouri was convicted, Törnkvist noticed his attitude towards her changing – he was no longer interested in speaking to her, in her opinion because she no longer served a purpose for him. The attitudes of others involved in the conflicts also shifted.
“A lot of these people are just normal folks who made some bad decisions. But there was a change. One person I was supposed to interview wrote a cryptic Facebook update about friendship and loyalty, then immediately removed me from his Facebook. My intuition there was he had been given orders and was following them. That was a shame – that particular guy was young, very talented, was writing amazing poetry while he was remanded.”
“It was heartbreaking seeing young people get sucked into that world. A beat cop told me that young guys would say to her that maybe one day they'd want to do something different. So she would go home, print out loads of information about what they needed to study, where the best place to do it was and so on. She realized afterwards that it was quite offensive to them, because she was trying to encourage them but at the same time also saying 'get the fuck out of here'. That's insulting their entire childhood, their parents, their class. Their town,” she noted.
When it came to Khouri, one chapter in the draft book proved particularly problematic. The release was delayed by a year as a result, and Törnkvist even had to find a new publisher.
“I had a chapter about some things that happened to Khouri. I remember thinking it was relevant, but also private, and I should give his family the right to reply. It was one of the few chapters where a reader would have some sympathy for him perhaps. After putting it to them I didn't hear anything for six weeks, then I got a call from one of his aunts who asked 'what book?'. He had always known I was writing a book. Then I got a call from one of his friends who said he was angry, then his father called and said he was irritated,” Törnkvist detailed.
“So I got in touch with Khouri, and we started writing letters again. He explained why it was so sensitive, because it was to do with honour, and you don't break that code of honour. So I decided 'fine, I'll take it out'. But my publisher freaked out. Two weeks later the prison services called me and said Khouri had told a visitor to send people after me.”
Police put up barricades outside Stockholm District Court as the trial of members of the Södertälje Network started in 2011. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT
The chapter in question was one the writer had been weighing up removing regardless, so its absence from the final book was not a huge blow to her. What did bother Törnkvist however was the changes she was forced to make to her life in the immediate aftermath of the suspected threat.
“I wasn't scared but I wanted to know why it had happened. I had to leave the work I was doing in Södertälje at the time. I was furious about that. Out of principle it infuriated me. I never wrote to him again. I had no doubt in my mind that I'd finish the book. Maybe he didn't understand that – he doesn't know me. If he had a plan, it backfired. But he's used to people buckling under pressure.”
In one way the delay proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the inclusion of a further interview at the last minute.
“In a way I'm glad everything happened – not that I was threatened of course – but my new publisher is a perfect fit. I had already spoken to a relative of a key witness, and then through that the key witness herself decided to talk to me very recently. She gave the book a huge lift. So the delay was a blessing.”
Now that the book is finally out, Törnkvist has time to reflect on what she has learned. One thing that stands out is the role that over-confidence played in the downfall of the gang, who saw 18 members convicted for involvement in murders and other severe crimes.
“Khouri's mistake was he pushed people too far. People had no choice but to testify and go into witness protection. And he and his gang tried to make these spectacular gangland hits in front of a lot of witnesses, stealing the mopeds they used to escape the scene for example. They had pay-as-you-go mobiles the police managed to trace.”
“They basically left breadcrumbs to be picked up. They were untouchable for so long, and fell into that trap,” she concluded.
“Följ Fucking Order: Liv och död i skuggan av Södertäljemaffian” will be released (in Swedish) by Mondial on April 1st.