Harleys to anti-tank missiles Scandinavian bikers mimic American style, penchant for violence

April 28, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Until the Scandinavian biker war started, Jorn "Jonke" Nielsen, a Hell's Angel doing time for murder, was becoming quite a popular and respected guy in Denmark.

Politicians sought his opinions on law enforcement. Schools invited him to chat about the free-wheeling lifestyle of the biker. He wrote books. He got haircuts. He had a photo spread in the Hell's Angels calendar. And he was pretty much free to come and go from prison.

It was so open-minded, so progressive, so Scandinavian.

Then, all across the orderly Nordic landscape, the Hell's Angels went to war with their long-standing worldwide rivals, the Bandidos. And from the moment the first anti-tank missile was fired, it was clear this would be no simple rumble of knives and chains in some grungy biker bar.

Already the fighting between the motorcycle gangs has included a midnight missile attack in a rural hamlet, a Sunday afternoon of shootouts at crowded airports in Copenhagen and Oslo, and, only Friday, a dawn raid on a prison, with machine gun fire and a grenade explosion.

Suddenly, Mr. Nielsen is no longer in much demand, except by police for any information he might have about why gang activities have become so frightening, so brutal, so American.

"This is not a situation we're used to seeing in Denmark, with people firing anti-tank weapons," said Mogens Sorensen, chief of the narcotics intelligence unit of the Danish Police. In a country of 5 million people, where there are about 60 murders a year, you might call that an understatement.

For that matter, the whole of Scandinavia is the last sort of place one expects to find the likes of Hell's Angels acting up. The usual idea of a "biker" here is someone pedaling a three-speed home from the market, or a thin fellow in tight shorts training at the velodrome.

Then again, this was also the land of the Vikings, men of similar build and burliness who gave loot-and-pillage a bad name, roaming far beyond the horizon in dragon-headed ships, the Harley Davidsons of their day. It is these sorts of cultural references -- with Viking images often showing up on biker patches, T-shirts and tattoos -- that have helped lend them an air of rugged individualism among some academics.

"All of these sociologists and other people sit on their knees writing about this wonderful world where a man is a man and a woman is a woman, and they are not critical at all," snorts Ambro Kragh, a Danish journalist who is writing a book on Hell's Angels, having monitored them locally and internationally for years.

Their local history dates to 1980, when the first Scandinavian chapter opened in Copenhagen, a franchise of the organization based in Oakland, Calif., the home grounds of founder Ralph "Sonny" Barger Jr. (and now with 93 chapters in 15 countries, according to Hell's Angels literature).

As with much of the rest of European culture these days, the Scandinavian motorcycle gangs have a distinctly American flavor, and have from the beginning, from their U.S. Harleys to their U.S. affiliations. The first bit of local business for the Hell's Angels, authorities say, was rubbing out the local competition, a motorcycle gang called the Bulls. That and other turf struggles helped stir up 13 murders throughout Scandinavia during five years in the early 1980s, police say, including the one for which Jonke was convicted.

International law enforcement authorities say Hell's Angels and other U.S. gangs such as the Bandidos and the Outlaws form an extensive network of organized crime, often involving narcotics and prostitution. Danish authorities have seen a similar pattern here, with bike-gang members often tied to the relatively minor level of activity that now counts for organized crime in Scandinavia.

Nonetheless, people such as Jonke gradually built an admiring after the gang wars of the '80s subsided.

Mr. Kragh grew so disgusted he put together a 60-page booklet to publicize the darker side of the Hell's Angels. On Feb., 15 he warned in an article in the Copenhagen daily Politiken that a Scandinavian biker war was imminent. He even said some might be armed with anti-tank missiles that had been reported stolen from a Swedish military depot two years earlier.

None of this stopped a Danish legislator from seeking to have Jonke appear before Parliament's Justice Committee, however. He was seeking the biker's advice on how to deal with the spread of organized crime, particularly with Europe's borders becoming more open by the day.

The Hell's Angels were already preoccupied with another sort of border encroachment, authorities say. A local gang called the Undertakers had become a problem. The group first sought affiliation with the Outlaws, but eventually became a chapter for the Bandidos, based in Houston, in 1993.

Mr. Larsen said the Hell's Angels agreed not to oppose the single chapter. But the Bandidos continued to expand, opening chapters in Norway, Sweden and Finland. And that meant war.

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