Comment: I was brainwashed to believe Kim Jong-il was a god
Looking at Tom Olsen now, it’s hard to pick him out as a former neo-Nazi.
The softly-spoken Norwegian now works alongside the man he once plotted to kill to help deradicalise other neo-Nazis.
So how did a man who once “had a swastika fetish” come to reform himself?
Olsen’s story begins in the early 1990s where during a stint in jail, the teen immersed himself in neo-Nazi literature and became “radicalised”.
He was involved in multiple acts of violence and at 23, flew to South Africa to join the white supremacist movement.
It was during this fateful trip that he experienced two major turning points.
While out drinking one night in Johannesburg, Olsen was robbed at gunpoint.
“There I was standing just after apartheid ended and he had gun to my head. I know there would have been no investigation if he killed me. I thought if I was in his position I would have killed me,” he said.
But the robber showed Olsen kindness and let him go – an act he did not expect.
“If he shot me I’d be dead, and he would have confirmed my beliefs of him. To me he was not capable of empathy. But him not shooting me, even though I knew I represented everything he hated in life … It was disturbing.”
Faced with no money, Olsen was allowed to stay at the hostel where to his disbelief, he spent the next couple of days “getting drunk” with an African guy from Zambia.
“There was a smiling guy, but he was black. He was watching me and I thought are you mad. So I turned so he could see my swastika. He just said ‘drink up sir.’ I thought he was a lunatic,” Olsen recalls.
“There I was sitting getting drunk with this black guy. There was an American couple who had always looked at me with disgust. They were looking at us now like we were some sort of tourist attraction. I didn’t care as I was getting drunk. I woke up next morning and struggled to remember what had happened and then thought, ‘Shit, I got drunk with a black man’.”
Olsen told Insight when he eventually returned to Norway and was jailed for another assault. That was when he decided to call it quits. He said he felt relieved when he finally told his parents.
“I felt 30 kilograms lighter. It was like having a backpack full of hate, it was very heavy.”
Today, Olsen has written a bookand a PhD on the subject and lectures in Norway and the US.
“My most important message is to promote anti-violence,” the 39-year-old said.
“You’re like a fireman; you have to figure out why it’s burning, not putting out the fire all the time.”
‘There is a way out for these people’
Tore Bjorgo, Director at the Norwegian Police University, told Insight Olsen’s journey is typical of how people get involved with extremist groups in the first place.
Bjorgo, who is is currently doing research on Anders Behring Breivik, has been a pioneer in the work around rehabilitating terrorists.
He said although a few would get involved for ideological or political reasons, while others mostly joined because they wanted friendship.
“People usually join movements as they fulfil basic needs they have. They sometimes join to do something to alleviate suffering. Young people didn’t join because they were racists, they joined for the social aspect. The need for friendship, to belong to something bigger than themself,” Bjorgo explains.
“Then you have others more into the adventure and excitement. Some have had a very turbulent past, perhaps have been brought up with violence in the family. They have experienced discrimination. They want to join a group that is a kind of salvation. Move away from their destructive life.”
Speaking about the work that Olsen and him do, Bjorgo said the most important thing they achieved was changing the thinking among police, youth workers and anti-racists.
“We showed them there is still a way out for these people. Not only to marginalise and destroy them, which was the old way of thinking. These people can be saved, there was a way to reintegrate them,” Bjorgo said.
Join the conversation on our Facebook page or use #insightSBS on Twitter.