Since 9/11, no question has dominated the West so much as: how do you stop terrorists? Billions have been spent, wars fought and regimes changed, but there has been no end to bombings, shootings and beheadings.
One city in Denmark, however, has tried a different approach – and it seems to be working. In 2013, before the program took off, some 30 people left Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, to go to Syria, in all likelihood to join ISIS. The following year, only one person went. So far this year, none have gone.
Otherwise, Denmark has one of the most serious jihadi problems in Europe relative to its population, with some 130 Danes having gone to fight for ISIS. The Aarhus results have been impressive enough to bring representatives of 33 countries to the city last year to learn how it was done.
“We wouldn’t say whether it’s ideological or political”
Allan Aarslev, a police superintendent who has been developing this deradicalisation program for more than a decade, told Apolitical, ‘We wouldn’t say whether terrorism is an ideological or a political problem. We don’t see it as anything other than a problem we have to deal with, and we see it partly as a problem of discrimination.
‘The young minority kids in our target groups tell us they feel discriminated against and we think that it is one of the major reasons for them to be in those radical groups. I couldn’t say whether they are discriminated against or whether it’s just a feeling, but that is what they tell us.’
Most countries have subjected those going to fight for ISIS to draconian treatment. The UK declared them to be enemies of the state, France shut down mosques suspected of harbouring radicals and several countries threatened to remove their passports. Denmark itself has just made it a crime – punishable by jail time – simply to travel to Syria without permission.
“We talk to them and see: why are they not included in society?”
But the ‘Aarhus model’ is built on something very different. Working from the assumption that young people become radicalised because they are not sufficiently included in society, it tries to make those tempted by radical circles to become better integrated into the mainstream.
After someone is brought to the program’s attention, they are invited to a voluntary interview with social workers and offered help with things like getting qualifications, finding work, building up a network of friends and participating in activities for their spare time.
Aarslev said, ‘We talk to them and see: what are their needs? Why are they not included in normal society? In our experience, if you help people with ordinary things in their lives, the radicalisation process disappears.’
The young people – 375 have been referred so far – are also offered advice from mentors who have been involved in radicalism themselves. Because the work in Aarhus was initially aimed at Right-wing extremists, some of the mentors are drawn from that background.
“In my opinion, we’re dealing with a very small problem”
Moreover, Aarhus makes clear to those leaving for Syria or already there that they are welcome to return and that they will be offered support, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Aarslev, however, is keen to stress that his program is not an alternative to prosecution or surveillance. A separate unit makes cases against those it can demonstrate have committed crimes – which until the passing of the travel ban has of course been extremely hard to do. Nineteen residents of Aarhus have so far returned from Syria; one is currently in jail awaiting trial.
Although the current focus is on Syria, the program applies equally to Right-wing extremism and was founded after the 2005 London bombings, which killed 56 people and alerted police forces to the concept of the ‘home-grown terrorist’. The need for a response of this sort is widely recognised: although none of the 33 countries that visited Aarhus last year has taken on its model wholesale, all are working with this emphasis on prevention and several cities in Belgium, which has the most jihadis per capita in the EU, are developing programs on very similar lines.
What is striking about the program is its rhetoric. Run as a collaboration between the police’s crime prevention officers and social workers, its language could not be further from a ‘war on terror’. In fact, Aarslev said, ‘In my opinion, we’re dealing with a very small problem that has been given a lot of focus not only in the Danish but the European attention. What we try to focus on is: what kinds of methods work to keep society safe?’
The program has come under fire for being soft on jihadis and dismissed as ‘hug a terrorist’. It is also too soon in a new field for there to be rigorous academic studies of this approach. But Aarslev said, ‘Our experience is that this works. We are quite sure. It’s not prevention or punishment or surveillance – it’s all of these methods, all together. When politicians criticise this program, saying we’re rewarding jihadis, our response is: well, it works. And if it works, and it can mean that we have a safer society, why shouldn’t we use it?’
(Picture credit: Pixabay)