Like many organised crime syndicates, The Network relied on “omerta”, the mafia-derived code of honour that enforces a strict rule of silence to thwart police attempts to tackle their activities.
But this story of murder and extortion takes place more than 2,000 miles from the traditional mob heartlands of southern Italy and Corsica, in a small Swedish city an hour south of Stockholm. Those unwilling to speak out in the large immigrant community of Södertälje were members of the city’s Christian Assyrian exile community from the Middle East. They closed ranks as the police attempted to take down Bernard Khouri, a 32-year-old former refugee from Lebanon who headed The Network.
That they finally succeeded in bringing him to trial is largely thanks Oritha Chabo, a mother of three, who heroically decided to ignore the code of silence and implicate Khouri.
A court is now hearing his appeal against a life sentence for extortion and three murders, including those of two brothers, one of whom was a local football star.
The end of Khouri’s crime career began in 2011 when Ms Chabo ignored threats to herself and her family and accused the crime boss of blackmail. He had threatened her parents with a gun in their home after her younger brother borrowed 10,000 kronor (Dh5,600), a debt that rapidly ballooned to a staggering 300,000 kronor (about Dh169,000).
“Threats and extortion of people in the grey-loans market is how criminal networks make money in Sweden,” explains Gunnar Appelgren, a detective superintendent who applauds Mrs Chabo for speaking up against Khouri’s gang. She eventually ended up in witness protection.
Yet even after Ms Chabo had taken her courageous stance and accused Khouri, the police in Södertälje were facing an obstinate wall of silence even from her immediate family. One by one, her mother, father and finally her brother, all refused to cooperate further. They even retracted witness statements that they had already made. “I made it all up,” her brother told the police.
Members of the Södertälje community have their own theories as to why so many witnesses were reluctant to come forward when illegal gambling, loan sharking with extortionate interest rates, and the threat of violence held the town ever tighter in its grip.
“If you live like a slave, controlled by others, you lose half your manliness, and you lose your judgment,” explains journalist Özcan Kaldoyo, who runs a Syriac-language, web-based TV channel in the city of about 90,000 people that has welcomed migrants since the early 1970s. Today, the roots of almost half of its populace can be traced abroad.
Mr Kaldoyo also believes that a culture of repression and persecution in many of the residents’ home countries also helps to explain the reluctance to come forward against Khouri and his gang.
“It will probably take generations before everyone has shed the fear from living with dictators and informants,” he says.
Robert Hannah, a Syriac-Swedish politician agrees. “The problem for the Swedish police is that Syriacs look very well integrated,” he says. “They are entrepreneurs and dress well, but the rules haven’t changed for us since we lived in corrupt countries in the Middle East.
“People, including the churches, look the other way when illegal money goes into circulation in the community. And people protect each other.”
And then there is the code of omerta. “If you get the police involved, you’re a traitor,” says Mr Hannah. “I don’t think anyone was surprised when it turned out Södertälje had a mafia problem.”
With the police making little headway in breaking the wall of silence, the police launched a large-scale phone-tapping operation, determined to find the evidence to crack the Network.
One recorded conversation revealed that Ms Chabo’s father had called his godson, a respected community figure called Yacoub Moussa who happened to be in dispute with Khouri over another matter, asking for advice.
Six weeks later, on July 1, 2010, Mr Moussa, a father of four, was dead. So was his brother Eddie, a local football star.
Their murders appeared to be deliberately public to keep the community silent. It took place in front of several witnesses in a local community centre. A stray bullet hit a radiator. The spilling water mingled with blood around the two dead brothers as a janitor, possibly in shock, tried to mop up the pink sludge.
”I can understand that they attacked Yacoub, who had power, but that Eddie was killed surprised me and many others,” said DSI Appelgren.
If the double murder was intended to keep the community silent it failed. People were deeply shocked and for the first time started talking to the police.
“When the Moussa brothers were murdered, people really took note,” says Mr Hannah. “Eddie was one of their best football players, and everyone identifies with their football club. In Södertälje, the churches ring their bells when the team wins.”
A member of the Assyriska Föreningen club, founded by Assyrian migrants in the 1970s, Eddie Moussa was “friends with everyone and became a key player”, according to his coach, Aydin Aho.
“But he could lose his temper, which was his big weakness,” he says.
Aho also emphasised the club’s role in helping subsequent waves of immigrants, including those who fled attacks by Islamist extremists in Iraq in 2005, and now those from Syria, where they make up about 5 per cent of the population.
After the footballer’s killing, mourners were welcomed at the club’s stadium to share their grief. The players, clad in their white shirts with red stripes, attended the funeral as a police helicopter circled above.
Also among the mourners were members of biker clubs, burly men in leather jackets whose presence illustrated the complicated ties between some members of the community and suspected criminal gangs.
“I felt sorry for the family,” says one mourner. “The funeral became a spectacle.”
By now, police were closing in on their suspects but the investigation into the town’s growing crime problem had taken too long, some observers felt.
“There was a lot of frustration in Södertälje at the time because people felt the police weren’t taking it seriously,” says Boel Godner, the mayor.
As more funds were released to the police to tackle organised crime, Ms Godner welcomed the initiative, crediting officers for taking a long-term approach to the problem in all its guises. Subsequent investigations have taken aim at tax and social-welfare fraud.
Khouri was arrested early in 2011. He was charged with ordering the hit on the Moussa brothers, as well as a third murder and a battery of other offences. More than 10 other people were charged with him.
Khouri has been locked up ever since, with severe restrictions. His lawyers claim he is being held incommunicado but the police have been quick to point out that crime fell drastically in the town once the Network’s top tier was behind bars.
The defence team deny that there was an organised crime network in Södertälje, with Khouri’s lawyer saying the phone taps showed nothing but a group of friends dabbling in minor crime
Back on the streets, efforts are now being made to turn local youths away from the lure of crime and easy money. Police are working with social workers to identify youngsters flirting dangerously with what remains of the Network. The results are mixed. One boy refused all offers of help, while another has gone on to study at a community college.
A request to interview the young man was turned down.
“This is a small town, and from the description, you’d be able to figure out who had been interviewed,” it was explained – a clear sign that even if the Network’s leaders are behind bars, their dark shadow remains.
* With additional reporting by Cajsa Collin