Police cordon off an area after four people were shot and injured in central Malmo, Sweden in June © John Nilsson/AFP/Getty

Sweden’s democracy could be threatened if the country fails to get a grip on gang violence and allows parallel societies to develop in its inner-city areas, the head of Sweden’s police force has warned.

Anders Thornberg told the Financial Times that Sweden faced a growing threat as incidents of shootings and bombings between rival gangs rise and family-based clans tighten their grip over some areas.

“If we don’t talk about this, then it could be a big problem. It’s not a threat to our democracy yet. But if you have certain groups standing outside of society, we will have a huge problem,” he said.

Sweden has suffered a wave of shootings, hand grenade attacks and bombings in recent years, particularly in the immigrant-dominated suburbs of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo, its largest cities.

This summer a 12-year-old girl was shot in crossfire between gangs and two Swedish teenagers were tortured and raped in a cemetery in a so-called humiliation crime. An Iranian immigrant and a Swede with a Tunisian father were remanded in custody in connection with the cemetery crimes.

Swedish police estimate there are 60 so-called “vulnerable areas” across the country, where a majority of the population is either foreign born or has two foreign parents and Mr Thornberg said letting such suburbs develop had been a “failure of Swedish society”.

He added: “Failing schools, feelings of exclusion, unemployment, a lack of adult role models — it’s a failure. It’s very important that we succeed with integration in Sweden. These young men, they must get help. But if they don’t integrate, they must meet consequences. Sometimes, we’re too soft.”

“When we arrest someone or when some of them are getting shot at, there’s maybe 10-15 men wanting to volunteer to take a higher-up role in the gang,” he said.

Anders Thornberg said of gang violence that ‘more and more politicians understand that we have a serious problem’ © Ibl/Shutterstock

But he added that he believed there had been an “awakening in society” as “more and more politicians understand that we have a serious problem”.

“It’s on the agenda — it’s number one for politicians now,” he said.

Asked about claims by some activists and academics that criminal gangs have infiltrated some political parties, especially at a local level, Mr Thornberg said: “It could be a problem. We must be aware. We have to be careful.”

The police chief, a former head of Sweden’s security services, said most of the violence was drug-related and occurred in areas with large immigrant populations where unemployment was high and schools were often failing. He said serious violence only occasionally affected what he called “ordinary Swedes” and most people had no reason to feel unsafe.

The Swedish police had to contend with a “lack of resources” but Mr Thornberg said he expected to have 5,000-6,000 more officers by 2024. He pointed to Operation Rimfrost — which over the past year has brought in police from across Sweden to crack down on crime in Malmo — as an example of how gang violence could be tackled.

“This will take time, the society will win, but we must do it together,” he said, adding that he was “not a pessimist”.

Sweden’s centre-left government has stepped up police recruitment after years of stagnation, even as the population increased by more than 1m to 10m people. But the country’s rightwing parties have seized on law and order, arguing that crime had become Sweden’s “second pandemic” and that the government had done little to tackle spiralling violence.

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