In Denmark, a new tactic for returning European jihadis: counseling

Police in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, offer mentoring and assistance in finding jobs to those returning from fighting in Syria's civil war.

No one could blame Danes for being suspicious of the Grimhojvej mosque in greater Aarhus on the Kattegat sea. The mosque, a brown-brick low-rise in an industrial zone, has served as a stopping point for 22 of the 31 local residents who are believed to have traveled to war zones in Syria and Iraq.

The mosque’s chairman, Oussama El Saadi, uses the kind of rhetoric that makes many Europeans shudder. “Jihad is a right, and it is the best part of our religion,” says Mr. El Saadi on a recent day.

But instead of clamping down at the mosque, police in Denmark’s second largest city have reached out a hand to prevent Muslims from becoming radicalized and to help reintegrate returnees from Syria and Iraq who decide to come home and face public hostility. 

Critics say now is not the time for "soft" approaches, with some 2,000 Europeans fighting in the Middle East and potentially returning home radicalized. But Aarhus officials counter that as discrimination against Muslims increases amid Islamic State beheadings and other atrocities against Westerners, the government has to balance punishment with prevention. It is the isolation and failure to integrate that fosters extremism, says East Jutland Police Commissioner Jorgen Ilum.

“The alternative to what we do here is not punishment, but rather doing nothing,” says Mr. Ilum. “This is crime prevention. Some wrongly call it a ‘soft approach,’ we call it the ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ approach.”

Prevention, not punishment

The idea in Aarhus was spawned after the London bus bombings in 2005; two years later the city-police initiative began. But it’s only now, with the flows of Europeans heading to Syria last summer – and now returning home – that other countries have taken notice. Perhaps the most high profile incident was the shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May that killed four. The suspect, a Frenchman, had returned from fighting in Syria.

The number of foreign fighters from Denmark, while low in absolute terms at less than 100, according to 2013 numbers, is one of the highest per capita in Europe, just behind Belgium. Those who have committed terrorism abroad are prosecuted when they return, a rarity given the difficulty of proving the crime. 

For the rest, they are contacted by police and a task force is formed that often includes friends and family members. With the help of scores of social workers and psychologists, the municipality and the regional police offer counseling, mentoring, and even assistance in finding jobs. Half of those who have left from Aarhus have been contacted by the city's police.

The approach falls into an establishment divide between northern and southern Europe on crime prevention, says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Islamist extremism at the Swedish National Defense College, with the south taking a harder line in general.

“In northern Europe there is much more of a blended approach,” he says, which combines law enforcement with social work and prevention. “South of the line [countries] are only relying on punitive measures … using the law as the only and last defense.”

France, for example, recently toughened legislation to revoke passports and IDs of those suspected of seeking to carry out jihad abroad. It also allows authorities to ban entry of EU nationals if they are considered a threat.

Some in Denmark wish their authorities would take a tougher approach. “We should be harder on them, our laws should be harder,” says Bente Jacobsen, a job consultant who lives outside of Aarhus. “The system in general in Denmark has sent a signal for many years that things here are soft.”

'Not rolling out the red carpet'

But Aarhus officials say their line is a hard one – and that it's working. Some of the Europeans who have left for Syria have gone principally for humanitarian reasons, and only later have gotten radicalized. Not all have committed crimes. “We are not rolling out the red carpet to them,” Commissioner Ilum says, “but we believe it makes sense to approach these people. … We cannot lock them up just because they traveled to Syria.”

The mosque chairman agrees, and says that repressive approaches like refusing re-entry to their countries could backfire. "They need to know that they will be free to carry on with their lives as they were before traveling," Mr. El Saadi says. "If these people can’t come back, they will become portable bombs wherever they are."

While the Aarhus integration efforts have received most of the attention – and criticism – their biggest success to date is in prevention. Just one resident is known to have left for Syria or Iraq this year, compared to 30 in 2013, police data shows.

Most governments have not done enough on prevention, those in the field say.

One European-wide initiative called the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) brings together best community practices in the area of extremist prevention. Omar Ramadan, head of the RAN Secretariat in Amsterdam, says he supports the law-and-order efforts that many governments have taken but that prevention has too often been an afterthought. Their group, in operation since 2012, is trying to remedy that.

“One of the lessons is that most communities at risk and most families of foreign fighters are partners with the government,” he says. “Mothers of foreign fighters want their sons to come home, or never go in the first place. A mistake many governments make is to reach out only after an incident.”

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