While the Swedish Security Service is assuring the public that it will do "even more" to limit the growth of terrorist environments in Sweden, the Swedish government is exacerbating the problem by welcoming returning ISIS jihadist fighters back into the country. (Image source: iStock)
"Violence-promoting Islamist extremism currently constitutes the biggest threat to Sweden," according to a January 15 press release from the Swedish Security Service (Säpo). "The level of the terror threat remains elevated, a three on a five-point scale. This means that a terrorist act is likely to occur," said Klas Friberg, head of Säpo.
"In order to meet the threat from terrorism, the Security Service will in future work even more strategically to limit the growth of extremist environments. It may be about dealing with [omhänderta] persons who constitute a security threat or, in cooperation with other authorities, working harder to ensure that these individuals are prosecuted for other crimes - or have their opportunities cut."
While Säpo is assuring the Swedish public that it will do "even more" to limit the growth of terrorist environments in Sweden, the Swedish government is exacerbating the problem by welcoming returning ISIS fighters back into the country. Approximately 300 people left Sweden to fight for ISIS and it is estimated that approximately 150 Swedish ISIS fighters have returned to Sweden. Approximately 50 of those who didn't return were killed.
The head of Säpo, in January, had described returning ISIS fighters as "broken people who have been traumatized by their experiences" and said that Swedish society has to "play a big role in re-integrating them". 
Swedish law does not allow the security services to take all necessary measures against returning ISIS fighters, even though a relatively new law, meant to address the problem of terrorists in Sweden, was adopted in 2016. The law does not allow authorities, for example, to seize or search the mobile phones and computers of returning ISIS fighters, unless there is a concrete suspicion of a crime, according to Fredrik Hallström, deputy head of Säpo's unit for "ideologically motivated actors." Furthermore, according to Hallström, the authorities do not know whether the returning fighters constitute a danger or not to Swedish citizens: "It is also difficult to answer because the assessments we make can change".
Many of the ISIS fighters took their families, including small children, with them when they joined ISIS. A Swedish-speaking family who had travelled to join ISIS had made a home movie, recently aired by the Swedish media, about their life of jihad. In one scene, the mother is practicing her shooting, while father helpfully explains to the children, "Now we will look at mommy when she is doing jihad". The home movie also shows the wife shooting off her gun while gleefully exclaiming, "That was cool!" and "Allahu Akbar" ("God is the greatest").
In another scene, the father can be seen getting ready to go out and kill, while telling his young son and his toddler daughter about how he stole a walkie-talkie from an "infidel" whom he had shot through the head and killed. The little boy explains to the father how to best use the ammunition for his assault rifle and asks to come along, but the mother tells him that his father still thinks he is "too young". The narrator of the film explains that many children of such ISIS families have returned to Sweden with their families and attend Swedish kindergartens and schools. The family in the movie is one of them. Swedish local authorities, however, do not know how many children have returned. According to a poll that Swedish Television channel SVT conducted among Swedish municipalities, Swedish municipalities are only aware of 16 adults and 10 children, out of 150 returnees.
Already in June 2017, the head of Säpo at the time, Anders Thornberg, told Swedish media that the country was experiencing a "historical" challenge in having to deal with thousands of "radical Islamists in Sweden". (As late as 2010, there were 200 jihadists in Sweden, according to Säpo). Thornberg also mentioned that his organization was receiving around 6,000 intelligence tips a month concerning terrorism and extremism, compared to an average of 2,000 a month in 2012.
Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, Swedes only feel more and more insecure in their own country. Four out of 10 women are afraid to walk outside freely, according to the new National Safety Report, published by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande Rådet or Brå).
"Almost a quarter of the population chooses a different route or another mode of transport as a result of anxiety about crime and one-fifth avoid being active on the Internet due to concerns about threats and harassment," according to Brå.
"Among women aged 20–24, 42 percent state that they often opted for another route or another mode of transport, because they felt insecure and worried about being subjected to crime. The corresponding proportion among men in the same age group is 16 percent... The degree of activity on the internet can also be affected by concerns about being subjected to crime. About every fifth person, regardless of gender, states that during the past year he has often refrained from posting anything on the Internet out of concern for becoming exposed to threats or harassment".
"Social media is an increasingly important forum for public discussion. If a fifth of the population feel that they do not dare to express themselves on the net for fear of being subjected to crime," said Maria Söderström from Brå, "then it can be a democratic problem".
Fear of threats and harassment is not all that is causing Swedes to feel that expressing themselves on the internet is something to avoid. Many who have voiced "wrong" opinions on the internet have been charged by Swedish authorities for "incitement against an ethnic group" -- a crime punishable under Swedish law. The "democratic problem" that Söderström describes, therefore, is twofold: the fear of threats and harassment from others, and the fear of prosecution from the state.
The organization believed to be largely responsible for these charges, at least since 2017, is "Näthatsgranskaren" ("The Web Hate Investigator"), a private organization founded in January 2017 by a former police officer, Tomas Åberg, who apparently took it upon himself to identify and report to the authorities Swedish individuals whom he and his organization decide are committing thought crimes and "inciting hatred" against foreigners. Åberg recently boasted that he had filed 1,218 reports with the police in 2017-2018 alone and that out of 214 charges, there had been 144 judgments. "Many are [still] awaiting charges" he wrote on Twitter.
Last November, the Information Society Group, an organization under the Council of Europe, invited Åberg to be a keynote speaker at its regional conference, "Addressing hate speech in the media: the role of regulatory authorities and the judiciary," in Zagreb. The conference examined "how hate discourse is regulated in different member States of the Council of Europe focusing on the specific role and work of national regulatory authorities, the judiciary and media self-regulatory bodies". Perhaps the Council of Europe considers Åberg's successful efforts at turning in fellow Swedes to the police for perceived thought crimes an example that other European countries should emulate?
Swedish taxpayers contributed 1.5 million SEK ($165,000) to Åberg's efforts in 2017 and 2018. Most of it, according to the Swedish news outlet Fria Tider, apparently goes towards paying Åberg's salary.
In November, Åberg's efforts led to the conviction of a 70-year-old woman for writing the following post, as a comment on an article about the violence of Muslim men against women, in a Facebook group, 'Stand up for Sweden': "Aren't we in Sweden or have we transformed the country into a damn Muslim monster?" The woman was then called in for questioning at a police station -- this would be the same Swedish police that does not have enough resources to investigate rape cases. There, she explained:
"I have been provoked by various headlines and by 'Cold Facts' [investigative journalism TV program] that they have burned and beaten their wives. I am wondering if it will be like that in Sweden, too, and it makes me upset"... I am opposed to them being nasty against women. We have so many Muslims coming. I must have meant that they are abusing women".
For an elderly woman to be concerned about the physical safety of women in Sweden, the government of which in 2016 declared itself "feminist" is, it seems, unacceptable to Swedish authorities. While returned ISIS fighters who might have raped, pillaged, tortured and murdered to their heart's delight are welcomed back to Sweden and can go on with their lives -- or plot terrorism against Swedes -- elderly Swedish women may not utter a word about their fear of such men or indeed their ideology. Chief Prosecutor Lars Göransson at the Public Prosecutor's Office in Gävle chose to prosecute the 70-year-old for "incitement against an ethnic group". In November, the woman was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of 4,800 SEK ($530).
Another result of Åberg's efforts was the January conviction of a 78-year-old woman who was charged for having written on Facebook, among other things, that Muslims are "bearded" and "ghosts". The woman became upset when she read about immigrants who commit serious crimes against the elderly and get away with low or no punishment. After Åberg had reported the woman, who apparently is poor and suffers from ill-health after a stroke and a lung disease, the prosecutor chose to charge the pensioner for six posts that she had written on Facebook. Among them the following: "Yes, all Muslims should be expelled from the country, we do not want them here. A lot of bearded men who scare the children".
The pensioner explained during questioning:
"I was angry when I read about how it worked with immigrants and how they avoid punishment for everything they do. They get acquitted, though they steal and do other things. It is unfair that those who commit gross crimes can go free. People knock down older people and take money from them".
The pensioner said that she would not have written what she did, had she known that it was illegal. She evidently labored under the misconception that she was still living in a democracy. In January, she was sentenced to a fine of 4,000 Swedish kroner ($443). The woman lives from a monthly pension of only 7,000 Swedish kroner ($775).
"Even an indirect reference to nicknames or other offensive terms about race or immigrants in general is covered by the law against incitement against an ethnic group and is punishable," wrote Judge Jon Jonasson in his judgment.
Swedish authorities clearly cannot -- or will not -- prosecute or convict the jihadists whom they so generously welcome to the country; yet they have no qualms charging and prosecuting harmless elderly pensioners. One might add that a culture that respects the human rights of returning ISIS fighters more than that of the elderly women who are afraid of them, is all but done.
 Ibid. at 57:28.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.