Mon, Nov 17, 2014 - Page 9 News List

How do you deradicalize returning Islamic State fighters?

While other Western nations are cracking down on citizens who want to go fight in or are coming back from the Syrian war, Denmark is taking a very different approach to reintegration by trying to rehabilitate them

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

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.

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