Aarhus, Denmark – An innovative rehabilitation programme is offering Danish Muslims in Syria an escape route from the conflict zone and help getting their lives back on track without the threat of prosecution.
The programme, a collaboration between welfare services and police in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, offers treatment for shrapnel and gunshot wounds and psychological trauma to returning fighters and humanitarian volunteers as well as assisting them with finding work or resuming their education.
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The programme also provides support to the families of those already in Syria, ranging from helping them stay in touch via Skype to liaising with government officials, consulates and intelligence agencies to help get their relatives home when they decide they want to leave.
The scheme offers an alternative approach to the latest tough measures unveiled this week in the UK, where returning Britons already faced likely arrest and the threat of prosecution on terrorism charges.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, on Monday gave police additional powers to confiscate passports and place restrictions on suspected extremists, as well as announcing moves to ban British citizens deemed to pose a threat to national security from returning to the UK.
Last month Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, said returnees from Iraq and Syria should be presumed guilty of involvement in terrorism unless they could prove otherwise.
‘Soft hands approach’
Unlike in England, where maybe you're interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say 'Do you need any help?'
But Steffen Nielsen, a crime prevention advisor and part of a multi-agency task force tackling radicalisation and discrimination in Aarhus, said authorities there have instead adopted a “soft-hands approach” and were providing help to about 10 out of 15 people who had returned from Syria.
“We are actually embracing them when they come home. Unlike in England, where maybe you’re interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say ‘Do you need any help?'” Nielsen told Al Jazeera.
While accepting that some returnees did pose a threat that would require security services to “kick down doors”, Nielsen said most needed support to recover from an often terrifying and demoralising ordeal.
“A lot of guys who come home have experienced a loss of innocence and some sort of loss of moral belief. They thought they were going down there for a good cause. And what they found was thugs who are decapitating women and children and raping and killing people, and everything smells and you’ve got diarrhoea from drinking the water and it’s not the great cosmic battle for al-Sham that you’d imagined.”
Denmark’s PET intelligence agency estimates that more than 100 people have gone to Syria since the war began in 2011, and that at least 15 have died. It said in June that a “significant number” of Danes had acquired “specific military skills as a result of training and participation in combat operations” which could be used to carry out terror attacks.
Police in Aarhus believe they include about 30 people from the city. Danish media reported in July on the death of a local teenager alleged to have been fighting with Islamic State while another local man, a 21-year-old white Danish convert, is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq earlier this year.
But Nielsen remains sceptical about how many have been involved in serious fighting and said most who had returned appeared to have travelled to participate in humanitarian work.
He is wary of pictures posted on social media of supposed foreign fighters posing with weapons, suspecting that few graduate to the frontline. Those that did were not the ones coming home, he added.
“The intelligence service says more than 100 people have gone to Syria and their definition is always that they have gone there to fight. But we don’t know if they are fighting, and we suspect that the intelligence service doesn’t know either.”
Nielsen said the programme’s separation from the work of the security services and police investigators was critical to its credibility and ability to build relationships in Aarhus’ Muslim communities.
“We are very upfront. If we have very clear information that you have fertiliser in the basement then we will pass that on. Otherwise we have a principle that no information goes to the secret service because we can’t work with people if they think we are passing on information.”
Comfort is key
This is also our approach. Don't make them feel that they have done something wrong.
The programme has also proved effective in stemming the flow of volunteers to Syria by reaching out to leaders of a controversial local mosque linked in the Danish media to 22 people who travelled there last year. Since then, just one person is believed to have followed them.
“They had to decide whether they wanted to talk to us or reject us and they chose to talk. Kudos to them,” said Nielsen. “We said, we think it should be handled like this. Young people without any training shouldn’t be going to Syria. People from Denmark are not equipped to handle themselves in a conflict zone.”
Oussama El Saadi, chairman of the Grimhojvej mosque, said leaders of the mosque were supportive of the approach taken by the local authorities.
“We think this is the right way,” El Saadi told Al Jazeera. “Not blaming them and making them feel that they have done a terrible thing and losing contact with them. This is also our approach. Don’t make them feel that they have done something wrong. Give them an opportunity to come back and tell what they have experienced.”
While the UK’s latest package of counter-terrorism measures includes compulsory participation in a de-radicalisation programme for those deemed to hold radical beliefs, Nielsen said Aarhus’ scheme was voluntary and did not address issues of ideology.
“We don’t spend a lot of energy fighting ideology. We don’t try to take away your jihadist beliefs. You are welcome to dream of the Caliphate. But there are some means that you cannot use according to the penal code here. You can be al-Shabab all you like, as long as you don’t actually do al-Shabab.”
‘Trial and error’
Mehdi Mozaffari, an expert on Islamism and radicalisation at Aarhus University, said he welcomed efforts to help young Muslims in the city at risk of being drawn into violence.
But he said work was needed more widely in Denmark to promote democratic values in marginalised communities and to integrate young Muslims and called for a coherent European Union-wide strategy to tackle the threat posed by Islamic extremism.
“It is positive. Every attempt to keep them out of terrorism and war is welcome,” Mozaffari told Al Jazeera. “There is a need for decisive initiatives but I don’t think this kind of small project will radically change the situation and nothing guarantees that it will be a success.”
Nielsen accepts that much of the work being done in Aarhus is “trial and error”, describing the city as a “petri dish” for new methods. He said much of the programme had been developed when Jabhat al-Nusra was still the dominant rebel faction, with the rapid rise of Islamic State posing new dangers and greater uncertainty for Danes involved in the conflict.
“It has made communication easier. Islamic State is so openly violent that it has made it easier for us to say, look, these guys are crazy, these guys do outrageous stuff. You are the one who risk being maimed and used in fighting against other rebels instead of Assad’s forces. But at the same time, their success makes them more appealing to some young people.”
Danish authorities are also coming under increasing political pressure to take a tougher approach, with police on Wednesday arresting the head of an aid charity accused of raising money for Islamic State, and leaders of right-wing parties calling on the government to create powers to strip Danes who travel to Syria of their citizenship.
“We are experiencing more political pressure to do something more like the British stuff,” said Nielsen. “The entire political debate is rife with simplifications. You can choose to shut them out and say okay, you chose to be a jihadist, we can’t use you anymore. Or you can take the inclusive way and say, okay, there is always a door if you want to be a contributing member to society. Not because we are nice people, but because we think that is what works.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper