Fifteen minutes west of the cobbled streets and chic boutiques of the Old Town in Aarhus, Denmark, on a bleak road of prefabricated warehouses and low-rise industrial units, sits a former ice cream factory that now houses the Grimhojvej mosque.
In this squat, drab building, at prayers or in its Muslim youth group, 22 young men — regular high-school and university students and first-time workers — heard something last year that persuaded them to abandon their families, studies and careers to wage jihad in Syria. Now, many are coming back and Denmark’s second city is giving them an unconventional welcome.
Most Western nations, fearful of the threat they could pose, are cracking down on returning fighters. In France, tough new anti-terrorism legislation allows authorities to seize passports and ID cards from would-be jihadists “likely to jeopardize public security on their return.” Britain has arrested at least 60 returnees; government talk has been of long jail terms, or trying to ban more from coming back at all.
At least 30 returning jihadists are facing trial in Germany, which is mulling far stricter exit controls, while, in Antwerp, 46 people were recently accused of belonging to a Belgian group that allegedly recruited and sent fighters to Syria. The group’s leader could face up to 15 years in prison.
Former Aarhus University psychology professor Preben Bertelsen said that the so-called Aarhus model is about “inclusion.”
“Look: These are young people struggling with pretty much the same issues as any others — getting a grip on their lives, making sense of things, finding a meaningful place in society. We have to say: Provided you have done nothing criminal, we will help you to find a way back,” he said.
It is not an approach that has met with unanimous approval in Denmark, which, with more than 100 young jihadists emerging since 2012, has produced more fighters per head from its population than any other Western European nation bar Belgium. Conservative parties, such as the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, have loudly criticized the city’s thorough deradicalization program as “soft,” “naive,” “shortsighted” and ultimately “very dangerous.” The Venstre party has called for returning jihadists to be stripped of their citizenship and handed six-year jail terms.
However, in his office on the fifth floor of East Jutland Police headquarters in Aarhus, Superintendent Allan Aarslev, who is in charge of the police end of the program, waves away any suggestion that the city’s approach represents the easy option.
“What’s easy is to pass tough new laws. Harder is to go through a real process with individuals: a panel of experts, counseling, healthcare, assistance getting back into education, with employment, maybe accommodation, with returning to everyday life and society. We don’t do this out of political conviction; we do it because we think it works,” he said.
Combined with a newly opened, intensive and sometimes difficult dialogue between city officials and leaders at the Grimhojvej mosque, it does indeed seem to work: From late 2012 until the end of last year, 31 men aged between 18 and 25 left Aarhus, a city of 325,000 people, bound for Syria. This year, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, there has been just one.
It might have launched only at the start of this year, but Aarhus’s exit program builds on a longstanding, integrated and very Danish approach to crime prevention that has operated for more than 30 years, according to Aarslev’s commanding officer, Police Commissioner Jorgen Ilum.
Police, social services and schools have worked closely together and exchanged information here since the 1980s. From 2007, in the wake of the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005 respectively, anti-radicalization efforts in Aarhus — concentrated until then mainly on the threat from Danish biker gangs and assorted far-right and far-left groups — switched to take in the risks of religious radicalization and homegrown terrorism.
“We involve teachers, social workers and youth clubs,” Ilum said. “We train them to spot the early signs. We mentor youths we consider at risk and run workshops in schools. We have good contacts with our minority groups and with parents. When, in 2012, some young people started to travel to Syria in spite of everything, they were the first to tell us.”
Fighting in Syria, as long as it is not for an outlawed group, is not illegal and Danish law does not allow authorities to forbid people from traveling.
“We can’t take passports. We have laws against participating in banned terrorist groups; fundraising, that kind of thing, but our only real tool is to try to persuade them not to go,” Ilum said.
In many cases, this approach was enough. Sometimes it was not. The young jihadists who traveled to Syria from the port city in 2012 and last year were mostly radicalized very fast — many in a matter of weeks, or at most months — in and around the Grimhojvej mosque. They share certain common traits, Bertelsen said.
“On the surface, they may appear perfectly integrated: middle class, well educated, from stable families,” he said in a study at the university. “But beneath, deep down, there is often a history of exclusion: daily, low-level racism; of just … feeling different from other Danes. They’re caught between two cultures: one at home, one outside. Also, between two identities: one fully integrated, the other not feeling welcome here. These are young people who are looking for existential answers.”
Not — or not yet, and certainly not necessarily — hardcore extremists.
Aarslev completes the profile: 29 of Aarhus’ young fighters are second-generation immigrants, he said. A clear majority are from African families, mainly Somali. Others are of Turkish, Palestinian and Iraqi origin: a cross-section of the city’s immigrant communities. Immigrants make up barely 15 percent of Aarhus’s population, although in some suburbs — including Brabrand, home to Grimhojsvej — the figure is two-thirds.
“In other times, under different circumstances, they might have ended in a gang,” Aarslev said. “Instead, they found radical religion. That’s fine, of course, we don’t mind what religious or political opinions people have — as long as they don’t support or take part in illegal activity.”
Bertelsen put it more bluntly: “The message has to be: ‘It’s great that you have religious, political convictions, that you’re critical of society. Just, please, find some way to deal with them that does not involve violence.’”
Of the 31 Aarhus youths who went to Syria, five have died there, 10 are still abroad and 16 have returned.
Ilum said the exit program’s workers, alerted by a call to a permanently staffed hotline, have spoken to all of the returnees, who have been asked — not ordered — to come in to the police station, get screened and be carefully assessed.
“But this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Ilum said. “If we think we have reason to believe they have committed crimes, we will investigate and prosecute.”
So far, police have been unable to prove any of the city’s returnees actively supported, or engaged in terrorism.
So what happens to them next? Their identities are, for obvious reasons, kept secret. However, half a dozen young returnees have declared they need no further help and will try to pick up their lives where they left off — so Aarhus police have simply handed their files over to the Danish intelligence service and asked that a watchful eye be kept on them.
The remaining 10 have accepted varying degrees of help.
Some are “extremely disillusioned by what they’ve seen and are no longer even thinking of Syria,” Aarslev said. “But others still talk of going back and some remain part of the youth group at the mosque. But even there we see signs their views are evolving: half are already back at school, the rest either working or looking for work.”
Three jihadists, though, have said they would like more sustained help to extract themselves from an environment of which they no longer want to be a part. For them, the exit program is effectively tailor-made; two are even being helped to move away from the city altogether.
All involved agree that the most important component of the Aarhus process is its use of individual mentors, to whom the would-be or returning fighter can turn for both practical, day-to-day help and serious religious and moral debate.
Michael, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has been one of the city’s dozen deradicalization mentors since 2010.
He is now working with his fourth mentee, a secondary-school student “wholly obsessed with the idea of going to Syria. To the point that he can’t concentrate on anything else. Physically, he’s there — at school, for example — but not mentally.”
Two of Michael’s clients were referred to him because alert members of Aarhus’s prevention network — teachers, police officers and youth workers — had picked up early signs of radicalization: a new and intense interest in religion; high levels of activity on particular Web sites; sudden changes in clothing and appearance; closing down existing relationships with friends and family. One was a returning fighter, desperate to go back to school and pass his final-year exams.
With all of them, Michael said: “I can, and do, help with homework, applications, practical stuff like that, but we also talk, a lot — about religion, Islam, free speech, politics, international relations. Serious, philosophical, intellectual conversations, twice a week for two, three hours.”
These meetings can take place anywhere, said Michael, who has a university background in religious studies and comparative religion, including cafes, parks or the canteen of the university library where he was talking to me, surrounded by “books and wisdom and learning and open minds.”
The goal is not “to persuade them to give up their religious conviction, but to help them balance that religious perspective with school, work, family — with life, in fact. To be able to see questions from a different angle, to have a more … nuanced understanding. A broader horizon,” he said.
Michael said religion has simply “taken over these young men’s lives; there’s no room for anything else. Often, when we first meet, they will say: ‘That’s just the way it is, nothing else is possible.’ They believe absolutely this very simple idea, that if they go to Syria they will be doing their religious duty and Allah will be pleased with them.”
Like many Aarhus mentors, Michael was trained by Bertelsen. Up in his study, the psychology professor said the core of his contribution to the program involves what he called “life psychology — my conviction that, whatever your issues, whatever your background or even your diagnosis, you still need certain life skills in order to have a good life.”
For would-be and returning jihadists alike, “those skills should equip them to be resilient — not to cope with their issues by falling for some Islamic State [IS] video online. It’s about learning to participate socially; being able to see other people’s perspectives; dealing with value clashes. Ordinary life skills that we all need,” Bertelsen said.
Vitally, in parallel with its exit program, Aarhus also decided early this year to start talking to the Grimhojvej mosque.
“We confronted them with their responsibilities,” Ilum said. “Now we hold monthly meetings. We discuss, debate, exchange. There is a real dialogue.”
The city’s young and energetic Social Democrat Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard frames that decision rather more firmly
“We needed, as a city, to make it very clear to the religious community that if it is not a part of the solution, it is a part of the problem. There had to be a real, a serious dialogue and they had to actively start discouraging people from traveling. We said if they weren’t prepared to do that, we would wind up the pressure, including legally and we would do it very publicly, out in the open, and in the media,” he said.
The bottom line had to be the message that it was “simply not in any way acceptable for young people to get involved in a conflict thousands of miles away that is not their conflict, that may get them killed, or leave them mentally or physically scarred — and open to prosecution,” Bundsgaard said.
That is not entirely how the mosque sees it, of course.
In his office there, amiable chairman Oussama el Saadi said that young people who left Grimhojvej for Syria went “to help. To make a difference. This is very normal in our religion: our friends, our brothers, our community are suffering in Syria, and we try to help them. Jihad is not just holy war.”
He said they are now coming back mainly because, far from helping fellow Muslims in a vicious, but black-and-white war against a brutal regime, they found themselves caught up in bloody infighting between the various radical Muslim groups now battling for control of Syria.
“The situation is not so simple, so straightforward any more,” el Saadi said.
Grimhojvej enjoys a reputation for radicalism far beyond Aarhus. In Germany, police are investigating one of its imams, Abu Bilal Ismail, after he urged worshipers at a Berlin mosque this summer to “kill the Zionist Jews.” In the US, the US Department of State recently added another, Abdessamed Fateh, who preached at Grimhojvej until last year, to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
However, the mosque seems to have adopted a slightly more moderate position, at least on the issue of jihad. It still refuses to condemn the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, outright.
“It is something new, and this is a war and they are doing horrible things to each other,” Grimhojvej spokesman Fadi Abdallah said. “We are in Denmark; we don’t have the information here to say whether we support IS or not. We don’t support the killing of innocent people; that is not part of Islam, but we have to wait and see if, overall, IS is really a part of Islam.”
It publicly supports “self-determination, a Middle East caliphate — that is an idea of our religion,” Abdallah said, adding that the Danish government’s recent move to join US-led air strikes against the Islamic State might encourage homegrown extremism.
However, even if Abdallah insists no one at Grimhojvej has ever “advised to travel to Syria,” and that it was “a real surprise” to learn from the police that 22 young men from the mosque had done just that, he confirms that it is now “preaching actively that it is not a good idea to travel.”
The mosque is not formally a part of the exit program, but “the idea is definitely the right one,” he said. “It is a good thing not to treat these young people as criminals, as they are doing in London and elsewhere. It is much better to treat them well, that way they would feel ashamed to do something bad when they have come back. If you treat them harshly, unfairly, they will start hating society.”
For Bundsgaard, the city’s position has the advantages of clarity and simplicity.
“You cannot pass laws to legislate on how people think, or feel, or what they believe,” he said. “But what you can do is be sincere about dialogue and integration.”
It also helps that the Aarhus City Council “speaks with a united voice — even the conservative opposition have voted for this and play an active part in it,” Bundsgaard added.
Top-down, hardcore measures — laws, blanket bans, all the rest — are all well and good, Aarhus seems to say.
Yet nothing beats what Bundsgaard calls a “coordinated, hands-on, ground-level, everyday approach — just pushing people in the right direction, and discouraging them from taking the wrong one.”
“If we weren’t doing this, we really could not do much. We can’t prosecute without evidence. Then these people would just be floating around, a potential danger. Which would you rather?” Ilum said.
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