Shooting incidents are highest in Scandinavia
Sweden faces grim wave of gang violence
Bombings are usually warning messages from gangs. Archival
Police sent dozens of gangster figures to prison. Archival
On October 15, thousands of followers of an Instagram channel watched what would be an important live stream. They found themselves watching a bearded man brandishing a gold-plated machine gun while hurling insults at members of a rival gang, supported by three masked men wielding machine guns. The man carrying the golden machine gun was Mustafa al-Jubouri, a leading member of a Swedish drug network known as Foxtrot. Al-Jabouri is believed to live in Iraq and has appeared to dispel rumors of his death and threaten various enemies, including the Swedish prosecutor.
The live broadcast sounded ridiculous, but the threats were serious. Sweden has suffered for years from high rates of gang-related violence, but it has been rampant over the past two years. In the first ten months of this year, there were 324 shootings in Sweden, 48 of which resulted in death. The rate of weapons crime is several times higher than in neighbouring countries. Gangs have resorted to attacking rivals' homes with grenades and dynamite, and there have been 139 explosions this year.
Meanwhile, the government is frantically tightening laws and increasing the law enforcement budget, but it is lagging behind the curve. An adviser to the Swedish justice minister, Daniel Bergström, said: "We should have expected this to happen and taken these measures at least ten years ago."
The current wave of violence is largely driven by disputes over the Foxtrot network. The gang takes its name from its leader Rawa Majeed, a 37-year-old Swedish Kurd, who saw a Swedish word meaning fox.
Majeed emigrated from Iraq with his mother as a child and grew up in Uppsala, a city about 70 kilometres north of Stockholm. Police say that over the past few years, he has succeeded in turning Foxtrot into the country's largest distributor of illegal drugs, co-opting rivals and seizing their spheres of influence, and he is now directing these efforts from Turkey, where he moved after serving a prison stint on drug-related charges in Sweden in 2018.
Overall, Sweden remains a relatively safe country, and conflict areas look like crime-ridden slums. Skarpnak, a southern suburb of Stockholm that has seen numerous shootings and bombings, is an elegant neighbourhood with low-lying buildings and gardens.
At a recent city council meeting in Kulturhaus, community activists lobbied council members over mixed-income housing, demanding that the "bat colony" be kept in a local park, but talk quickly shifted to security concerns. City councillor Monica Loveström says: "We saw many shootings at the beginning of 2022, which really woke us up." There have been three explosions in the area this year, one of which on August 19 blew up the stairs of an apartment building.
Gangs often use bombings as a warning, and none of the gangsters in Scarbnak killed anyone. The only person killed in Sweden this year was a 25-year-old bystander, but in early September a 13-year-old boy – from one of the wealthiest and safest areas of the region, in a forest south of the city – was found dead with a bullet to the head. Prosecutors have not disclosed details, but say the murder was linked to a gang. Because the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 16, gangs recruit younger teenagers to work in drug delivery, sometimes as murderers.
Police say some recruitment is done via chat apps. School-age children follow accounts that publish to-do lists and prices. They usually deliver drugs. In very rare cases, they may be handed a pistol and a description of the target, but with no training they are unlikely to succeed.
Politically, the crime wave is difficult for the government. Center-right Prime Minister Ulf Christersson led his moderate party to power in last year's election by blaming the gang violence on the centre-left Social Democrats, who have been running things since 2014. Conservative voters expect a right-wing government to be formed and crime tackled, especially as it relies on the support of the far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats.
The government has already lengthened criminal sentences, although many are still shorter than those in other northern European countries. Christersson says he wants to adopt "Danish penalties for Swedish crimes," referring to Denmark's stricter rules (for example, doubling sentences for gang-related offences). It also gives police more powers, and the law, which came into force on Oct. 1, allows them to request electronic surveillance based on evidence suggesting the target is involved in organized criminal activity. Previously, the targets had to be linked to a specific crime.
Some parties were putting forward less practical ideas. Swedish Democrats have suggested that children as young as 13 should face adult penalties for serious crimes, including life imprisonment and deportation of gang members with non-Swedish backgrounds. The SPD leader has floated the idea of using the military, though it is not clear what he could do about teenagers joining gangs.
Others believe that the exclusive focus on implementation is short-sighted. Stockholm's deputy mayor, Jan Johnson, who was a school principal in a difficult neighbourhood, said: "We have to focus on combating the decline of youth values." He wants to systematically teach civic morality in schools, and increase funding for juvenile detention centers, where young criminals are arrested.
This seems unlikely to pay off anytime soon, but reducing gang violence through law enforcement will also be a difficult task. Many prominent figures in criminal networks, such as Majid (the leader of the Foxtrot gang), are not in Sweden. In late October, five people linked to the network were arrested in Tunisia. On 31 October, another man who was a member of Foxtrot was reportedly killed in Sarajevo.
The police know very well that successes in the drug war are usually temporary. In 2020, Dutch and French police managed to dismantle an encrypted network called Ancrochat, which drug networks were using to communicate. Swedish prosecutors used the evidence to send dozens of figures from the then dominant gangs, such as Bandidus and Satodarah, to prison. The effect was to open the door to a new person, according to investigators, and a few years later Foxtrot was running the scene.
The Swedish government is frantically tightening laws and increasing the law enforcement budget, but it is lagging behind the curve.
• 139 explosions occurred this year in Sweden.
• The police are well aware that successes in the drug war are usually temporary.