From the Welfare State to the Caliphate
How a Swedish suburb became a breeding ground for foreign fighters streaming into Syria and Iraq.
GOTHENBURG, Sweden — When he was 3 years old, Ahmed arrived in southern Sweden from Iraq, together with his older brother and parents. The family settled in one of their new country’s cut-off suburbs, where its many new immigrants come to live, but mostly to be forgotten.
The family found a home in one of the many rows of gray, faceless apartment buildings that make up these deeply segregated suburbs that ring Sweden’s urban centers — in Angered, outside Gothenburg. As he grew into his teenage years, Ahmed began to scold his siblings to be more religious. He spent considerable time in front of his computer, becoming engrossed in graphic, violent videos from the civil war in Syria. Inspired, he read the biographies of martyrs who had died in battle, waging jihad in the holy land. And gradually he turned inward, withdrawing from society and his former life.
A troubled teenager in search of his identity, 17-year-old Ahmed was asking the basic questions of coming of age: Who am I? What is my place in the world? At the local mosque, extremist recruiters made easy work of him, providing the answers he sought. In just six or seven weeks, he became radicalized — changing his beliefs and adopting a Salafi interpretation of Islam, with a strict, binary outlook on life. He distanced himself from his friends, labeling them apostates. Or, as he said, kuffar.
In the summer of 2013, with the war in Syria intensifying, the mood among the youth of Angered, including Ahmed, began to change. Described by social workers as an “ordinary” young man, Ahmed spent his time on the streets due to unemployment. He hovered on the periphery of gangs and petty criminals. Worried, his mother began calling Ahmed’s youth workers, asking them for help. (Ahmed’s parents were Muslims but certainly not devout.)
One social worker, who asked that his name not be used due to the sensitive nature of his job, said he also noticed the rapid change in Ahmed — one he had seen many times. Whereas before Ahmed wore baggy clothes and listened to hip-hop music, now he wore a white robe (thawb) and a Palestinian shawl (keffiyeh), and he sported a new beard. He argued that music should not be played at one of Angered’s youth centers. It was haram, forbidden.
Speaking in his barren office, the social worker said that Ahmed “was only days, or maybe hours, from leaving for Syria,” like other radicalized youth before him. On New Year’s Eve 2013, Ahmed’s mother called her son’s social worker. “He is going,” she said. She begged her son not to go, and the social worker spoke with Ahmed’s friends and tried to persuade him not to go.
At the last minute, knowing he was going to Syria within days, they finally managed to convince him to stay. “But his views have not changed,” the social worker said, exasperated. “His family has to monitor him 24/7 and accompany him wherever he goes.”
The story is a familiar one. Angered has become a recruitment hub for jihadis departing from Sweden and flocking to Syria in the hopes of taking up arms with extremist jihadi groups. Community police officials say that recruiters organize and assist travel to Syria. In interviews with a range of individuals — including police, social workers, municipal council officials, Migration Board officials, journalists, and others — a worrisome picture emerges of an area that in all likelihood has one of the highest concentrations of foreign fighters going to Syria and Iraq in all of Europe.
In January 2015, the head of the Swedish Security Service stated, “130 cases of people who have left to join the fighting have been confirmed, then there are the presumed cases, and then there are those that have not been counted, which brings the total to between 250 and 300.” As many as 30 men from Sweden have died on the Syrian battlefield, and there is no indication of a decrease in individuals traveling to the conflict. According to local authorities, as of November 2014 there were at least 50 fighters from Gothenburg who had traveled to Syria and Iraq, with 22 of them still in the conflict zone. Of the Gothenburg fighters, 11 were women. At least 18 had returned. In all of Sweden, at least 80 fighters have returned, with some traveling back to Syria again. There are unconfirmed estimates from former foreign fighters that there may be as many as 150 fighters from Gothenburg alone.
According to Zan Jankovski, a social worker with more than 20 years of experience in the Gothenburg area, young people there have grown deeply disillusioned about their future prospects and have come to blame society for their personal disappointments. That disillusionment has become coupled with a post-9/11 mentality among youth whose religious identity as Muslims is often defined against the backdrop of the U.S.-led war on terror and the long list of grievances that accompanies it: Guantánamo Bay, rendition, xenophobia. Moreover, these youths have embraced a line of thinking that the West is at war with Islam.
This intellectual climate has become the background music against which disaffected Muslims are growing up in the marginalized suburbs of Sweden. Rampant unemployment and the failure to integrate the country’s growing immigrant population have helped make these suburbs pressure cookers of discontent: On Facebook and other social media, many Muslim youths are adopting the avatars of the Islamic State, the al Qaeda offshoot whose territorial gains in Iraq and Syria have dragged the United States back into another conflict in the Middle East. Martyrdom announcements on social media are met with messages of celebration.
Indeed, the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and other extremist factions in Syria find in Sweden’s suburbs both support for the jihadi cause and willing recruits.
Prior to the emergence of Syria as the premier destination for jihad, Swedish security concerns focused on the recruitment of youths to fight on behalf of al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. Periodically, al-Shabab carried out targeted recruitment drives among vulnerable young Somalis in youth centers and underground mosques in Gothenburg and Stockholm. About 30 Somali-Swedes joined up with al-Shabab when it was still viewed by many as a “liberation” movement, between the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and 2009.
The recruitment to al-Shabab of Somalis in Sweden was aided by the presence of several high-ranking leaders of the group who had sought refuge in the Nordic country. Most notable among them was Fuad Mohamed Qalaf, also known as Fuad Shangole. After living in Sweden between 1992 and 2004, Shangole returned to Somalia to become the third-highest-ranking leader of al-Shabab. Somali youths in Sweden no longer show significant interest in joining the armed struggle in Somalia and are instead signing up to fight in Syria.
The problem of terrorist recruitment in Sweden was only worsened by the flow of refugees from Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Although most refugees were civilians, uninterested in violence, among those who fled to Sweden were jihadi operatives and even leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that would later spawn the Islamic State. Refugees who had arrived to Sweden before the 2003 invasion would later become leaders within al Qaeda in Iraq. One of these high-ranking fighters was the Moroccan-born Mohamed Moumou (aka Abu Qaswarah). After training in al Qaeda’s Khalden camp in Afghanistan, he rose to become the group’s second in command and was in charge of the area around Mosul, Iraq. Moumou received his Swedish citizenship in 1994 and was active in the infamous extremist milieu at the Brandbergen mosque near Stockholm. In 2004, he was arrested in Denmark on suspicion that he was involved in the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings that left 33 people dead. He was later released, departing for Iraq. Moumou was killed by U.S. troops in 2008.
Some of the Iraqi refugees who arrived in Sweden and who had connections to militant groups have since resurfaced in the Syrian civil war as midlevel commanders within the Islamic State and other jihadi factions, such as the Muhajireen Brigade. Chechen refugees in Sweden have also left the country and reappeared among the ranks of radical Islamist groups in Syria. According to Swedish police investigators, these Chechen fighters are particularly good at alternating between criminal enterprises, such as human trafficking, and participating as highly capable fighters in the Syrian civil war.
Now, Western security officials are terrified that these men, whether departing from Sweden or elsewhere, will return one day to carry out terrorist attacks in the West. In September 2014, the U.N. Security Council passed a sweeping resolution that requires states to crack down on individuals trying to join up with extremist groups abroad, and the stream of American fighters into Syria has galvanized political support in Washington for a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State. Last week, President Barack Obama’s administration convened a three-day summit aimed at countering violent extremism and stopping acts of terrorism before they are carried out.
But eliminating the threat of foreign fighters is not a battle being fought in the halls of power. Rather, it is playing out in obscure, neglected suburbs all around Europe.
Angered is a highly segregated part of Gothenburg with a significant multiethnic youth population of about 50,000. Nearly half of Angered’s population is under 30, and the city suffers from a youth unemployment rate of 15 to 22 percent and high juvenile crime rates. The city also features territorial gangs and a thriving narcotics market. More than 72 percent of residents hail from an immigrant background. Of those between the ages of 20 and 64, nearly half are neither employed nor studying. Only 14 percent of students with an immigrant background continue from high school to higher education.
Recruitment into extremist milieus often occurs quietly in apartments or at night in small gatherings in select mosques. In certain parts of Angered, there are “garage mosques,” or unofficial places of worship, which make little or no effort to conceal their activities. In one case, while accompanying a community police officer, we came across the “Blue Door,” a well-known garage mosque where extremists congregate, with steady traffic in and out of the building. It is not far from Angered’s central square, and it is indeed colored blue. The police officer signaled to us not to go too close.
Social workers with contacts among fighters who have returned to Sweden say that it generally takes only two months from the time a person says he wants to go until he arrives in Syria. According to law enforcement officials who are closely monitoring travel routes for foreign fighters, Swedish militants in Syria tend to arrive there either by car through Europe via Bulgaria or by flying on charter or commercials flights to Istanbul, where there is reportedly a well-known safe house for European foreign fighters. Once in Istanbul, facilitators help the wannabe fighters travel toward the eastern Turkish border and into Syria. Some fly directly to Hatay province, Turkey, where there are “European” guesthouses along the border with Syria’s Idlib province and in the Reyhanli area. For a few hundred dollars, local fixers bring foreign recruits over the border to specific Islamic State-administered guesthouses.
But the group that a fighter ends up joining can be somewhat random. According to Danish officials working on preventing violent extremism in Aarhus, another Scandinavian hub of jihadi recruitment, the day on which a fighter arrives can impact which group he signs up with, as scouts from different militant factions arrive at the Turkey-Syria border to select prospects. Arriving on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, for example, can determine whether a recruit ends up with the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front.
But before being sent into combat units, recruits are asked to surrender their passports and attend basic military training at camps inside Syria. This three- to four-week training also includes ideological indoctrination sessions. Prior to the Islamic State’s recent battlefield successes, foreign fighters were generally allowed to travel back and forth to Sweden to recruit or fundraise. But to ensure operational security amid intense scrutiny by the world’s intelligence agencies, some senior Islamic State commanders now keep a tight rein on travel, according to senior Swedish police investigators. This raises important questions about those who do return: Did they manage to sneak out, or did they get permission to go back with possible orders to stage an attack?
In November 2012, a jihadi video appeared online that depicted a group of gun-toting, balaclava-clad men claiming to be from Angered. “We are Mujahideen Fi Ash Sham, and we bear witness to the obligatory nature of jihad for all who believe in Allah, the Prophet, and the Doomsday,” the men declared. “Jihad is obligatory in Syria and the whole world.” The message was delivered in Swedish and signaled the formation of a separate Swedish national unit within jihadi ranks in Syria.
There have also been reports of so-called Swedish jihadi brides featuring alongside the mujahideen fighting on the ground. These women are urged to marry mujahideen. A 2013 British Channel 4 documentary about the so-called jihadi “band of brothers” in Syria features Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, the first British fighter to die in Syria. Mazwagi married a Swedish woman who became pregnant and later returned home — it’s unclear exactly when — to Gothenburg as a widow. According to Swedish law enforcement officials, at least 15 women have followed since. Some of these jihadi women are appealing on social media for other Swedish women to join them. A few of these Swedish jihadi brides in Raqqa pose in photographs on their Facebook profiles brandishing handguns, whether for self-defense or combat duty is unclear.
It is such men and women who European security officials are terrified will return home to carry out terrorist attacks.
Sweden has already tasted this threat. In 2010, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly emerged out of nowhere to set off a suicide bomb in central Stockholm. Miraculously, the bomb failed and he managed to kill only himself. Abdaly had reportedly received training in Mosul and was known to Iraqi counterterrorism officials, who were shocked to find that he had targeted Sweden and not the United States. After coming to Sweden from Iraq as a 10-year-old, Abdaly had adapted well to his new country. He played basketball and had a Jewish girlfriend, but after moving to England to study, he began to radicalize. After the 9/11 attacks, the area in England where he lived saw an explosion in activity by the English Defence League, a frequently Islamophobic right-wing populist group. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the subsequent human rights abuses there, fighting in Chechnya between Russia and Islamist rebels, and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah further inflamed his politics. In 2007, he began traveling to Iraq and Jordan, and when he resurfaced, it was as a suicide bomber on the streets of Stockholm.
As of the Swedish Security service’s 2010 estimate, there were 200 violent Islamist extremists in Sweden, 30 of whom were deemed particularly dangerous. Many of the 200 know one another through their travels among global jihadis and through social media. They move in the same circles, and men who have fought in different combat zones have been found in official court proceedings living together in flats, creating connections between al-Shabab, al Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups. Given the recent statement by the Swedish Security Service that as many as 300 individuals have traveled from Sweden to foreign battlefields, the official number of 200 violent Islamist extremists is probably a very low estimate.
Yet it is the local context — the politics of families and cities — that is perhaps most crucial to understanding the phenomenon of foreign fighters partaking in jihad. At some point, frustrated young men decide to turn their backs on their families and hometowns in order to fight in a far-off war, and why they choose to do so is profoundly influenced by the environment in which they grew up.
Consider, for example, Angered’s sizable Somali community, which is one of the city’s most disadvantaged. According to a local police officer, in one hamlet of Angered unemployment among Somalis of working age has reached a staggering 95 percent, and seven in 10 Somali youths do not finish primary school. Of those who make it to high school, only one in 10 continues to a second year of study.
While Somalis tend to settle by clan affiliation in neighborhoods, many families face overcrowded housing conditions. According to a local charity worker who asked to remain anonymous because of threats made against her life, it is not unusual to find 20 people living in a two-bedroom apartment and sleeping in shifts. A police officer, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of his work, said that on several occasions he had entered flats with mattresses piled up against the walls. “Sometimes that is not enough and people start to sleep in the staircase,” he added.
In communities like Angered, where Sweden’s ambitions of integrating its large immigrant population have mostly failed, religious extremism and criminality have taken on a commonplace quality. There are cases of religious enforcers operating to ensure that sharia law is adhered to and who harass people, mostly women, for attending parties where dance and music are involved. Using intimidation and scare tactics, they confront public events considered haram. This atmosphere reinforces a code of silence among the community. That code of silence is reinforced, in turn, by the daily racism many immigrants in Sweden face.
According to Johan Walter, an expert on Somalia and the Somali community in Gothenburg who works for the Swedish Migration Board, Somali society in Angered can best be described as a triangle, with the clans at the top, Swedish society at one lower end, and religious extremism at the other. “The clans exercise xeer [clan control] and do not want people to integrate and become a part of Swedish society; otherwise they lose influence over them,” he said. “The longer people stay in Sweden, the more likely they are to drift away from the clan, either toward Swedish society or toward religious extremism. That’s why they have an interest in a constant influx of new Somali immigrants, to keep their clan strong.”
The confluence of these factors makes extremism difficult to disentangle from local dynamics and environmental factors. As one community police officer succinctly put it: “The fact of the matter is that religious extremists, criminals, and clans are keeping the rest of the community as a social hostage.” Indeed, during a visit to Angered in the fall of 2014 to speak at a conference on Islamist extremism, we needed a police escort from the area due to what was described as the threat posed by local gangs. One of the gang leaders had appeared at the conference through one of the local civil society organizations. Police decided it was not safe to leave the premises without an escort.
To better understand how this social environment produces extremists, the Swedish Security Service has identified four typologies or pathways to extremism: the delinquent, the brooder, the familial, and the contact-seeker. The delinquent refers to a person with a difficult background from a young age who is often involved in criminal activity and drug abuse. This person often has a black-and-white worldview and is attracted to simple answers to difficult questions, making him an easy target for radicalizers looking for new recruits. The brooder is an individual searching for answers to life’s greater meaning. Unlike the delinquent, he turns his focus inward, often by reading and contemplating, leading to a more intellectual path toward extremism. The familial pathway refers to a person who grows up surrounded by radical individuals steering him toward extremism by making it seem normal. This person likes to envelop himself with like-minded individuals who don’t question his beliefs and instead accept and reinforce them. Finally, the contact-seeker is an individual who is not primarily interested in radical ideas but seeks close relationships, acceptance, and the feeling of belonging to a group. This kind of person often ends up in extremism by serendipity, as the ideology is accompanied by new friends and feelings of group solidarity.
In spite of the sophisticated typology developed by Swedish security officials, local officials are struggling with how to respond to the foreign-fighter phenomenon. When we visited Angered in the fall of 2013 and asked authorities what actions they were taking to stem the number of men leaving their community to fight abroad, we were met with silence. It was the first time the city’s municipal council had discussed the issue.
This month’s attacks on a cafe and a synagogue in Copenhagen and the January attacks in Paris on the office of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket have completely changed the public debate in Sweden about foreign fighters. Previously, the topic of foreign fighters was in Sweden a taboo subject to discuss, but now many politicians are pushing for tough legislation to prevent individuals from traveling to and returning from Syria.
According to Swedish law, it is not illegal to become a foreign fighter or to join U.N.-designated terrorist organizations, but it is illegal to commit a war crime or an act of terrorism. As a result, responsibility for foreign fighters falls almost wholly on the security services, which should constitute the last line of protection but are often the first and only responders.
A new parliamentary inquiry due this summer will address stronger counterterrorism legislation and is expected to outlaw joining an organization designated a terrorist group by the United Nations or European Union.
While such a measure will probably reduce the flow of fighters, it will not provide a complete solution to the issue. There are numerous challenges to tackle. One is the gap between the national government and local municipalities; bridging it would ensure that community workers knew where to turn for help and how to respond to foreign fighters — both those who are leaving and those who are returning.
Providing support from a multitude of agencies to the families of foreign fighters is one policy option. Gothenburg has much to learn from how the Danish municipality of Aarhus tackles its current caseload of 31 foreign fighters. In its so-called preventive SSP-model (integrating schools, social service, and police), Aarhus provides returning foreign fighters with mentors, psychologists, and family-support structures if they can’t be prosecuted. (Most don’t face charges due to lack of evidence.)
Engaging and involving civil society in this prevention work is also essential. It is important to recognize that there are significant differences between different local Muslim communities. It can best be described as a complex ecology — constantly changing and rich in diversity. Each community must be approached by local authorities on its own terms, in a customized way, in both channels of dialogue and engagement strategies.
Western policymakers often speak of the foreign-fighter problem in national terms, but this is incorrect. Each city contains different dynamics and problems. Understanding these cities can help in beginning to explain why fighters leave in the first place and understanding the danger they actually pose as potential terrorists when they return. Cities across Europe are seeing their young men — and some women — leave in greater numbers for foreign battlefields. It is crucial to focus on these cities rather than on national perspectives in order to understand the foreign-fighter phenomenon and what to do about it.
The story of Ahmed ended well. He was persuaded to stay home rather than leave to fight on behalf of the Islamic State. But others continue to depart, and many others have returned either disillusioned or further radicalized. And children even younger than Ahmed still want to join the Islamic State.
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images