Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, has become famous for an innovational model to re-integrate its returning fighters. Some have been home for over 2 years; and they were offered a chance back into the Danish society.
By Yasmine Hassan
Back in 2012 …
When their son came home from Syria, the family of an 18 years-old Danish citizen with Somali descent notified the authorities.
Two days after, the police approached the young man.
He was not accused or arrested … however, in a week, he was offered a “mentor”.
It took him a while to trust that man whom he saw as just one of the police’s guys. But a few months later, he was ready to open up.
Today, the young man is about to finish college; and according to his mentor, he wants to go to University and to have a successful life in Denmark.
“It is very important that he wants to be here and he knows his future is here. Before, it was not … it was I want to help other people,” says his mentor E.K. who wants to remain anonymous.
The Mayor of Aaarhus Jacob Bundsgaard and Police Commissioner Allan Aarslev talk about the Aarhus Model
With at least 4000 Europeans joining the jihad in Syria, travelling from Europe towards Syria or Iraq today could be seen as a one-way ticket. If they even consider coming home, most European “foreign fighters” either face hard prosecution or cannot even get into their countries.
The city of Aarhus has adopted a very different approach in dealing with its returning fighters.
“These are Danish citizens and they have a legal right to be here,” Jacob Bundsgaard, the mayor of Aarhus municipality says.
Aarhus has been treating its homecoming youngsters more like teenage rebels, rather than convicted criminals. They are offered counseling, guidance, mentoring, and a chance back into a normal life.
Out of 17 who came home, only one young woman is currently being prosecuted.
In February 2015, she left for Syria with her husband to join the Islamic State. 4 months later, he was killed in a bombing attack. A beautiful woman, 22 and pregnant, she was left alone, angry and frustrated, until her father managed to bring her back to Denmark. She was picked up by the Danish intelligence services; and they charged her for the 114-penalty code of terror.
According to Detective Thorleif Link, a policeman in the “Info House” that makes the direct contact with homecoming youngsters, most of those who have been in Syria worked in refugee camps or administrative services. “They are not Jihadists,” Link says.
A very few did admit carrying a gun and fighting but none of them could be associated to any criminal act; and therefore, they cannot be prosecuted according to the Danish law.
“They were disappointed. They gave up, and came back. Now they want to be left alone with their education and families,” Link explains.
How the model started …
The Aarhus model is not newly invented. It follows the same mechanism the city has used in crime prevention for 30 years.
All concerns about radicalized youth go through the “Info House,” staffed by two policemen and two social service employees. They make the initial risk evaluation, offer counseling, and initiate dialogue with the youngsters and their networks, as part of a prevention strategy. “We nearly had nobody who refused to come and we usually have a good talk,” Link says.
In 2012, a new issue came up with people leaving for Syria. And the Info House had to deal not only with prevention of radicalization, but also with contingency for Syria volunteers.
“Many left like a thief in the night without saying anything; and families were very disturbed and afraid,” Link says.
The parents resorted to the Info House, which put them together in support groups. “If no one could help them bring their boys back, they could get together to tell their stories and somehow it helped them,” Link explains.
Most of the families had Arab Palestinian or Somali backgrounds; and some of them ended up calling the Info House when their sons came home.
Detective Link recites the Info House’s approach to a homecoming youngster from Syria:
After interviews, risk evaluation, and counseling, a decision is taken, which could include “re-establishing education or work, physical or mental rehabilitation, mentoring …etc.”
That is when the mentor comes in!
The mentoring program is an integral part of the Aarhus model.
“You have to listen, to be patient, and to understand what is confusing the young guy,” says E.K. a Turkish born Aarhus lawyer and one of 10 mentors in the program.
E.K. explains that the hardest challenge with his three mentees, including one young man back from Syria, has been to establish a trust relation with the youngsters.
“My mentees see me as a role model,” E.K. says. “Many of the young guys put a victim jacket on. By talking to them, I tell them it is a good society where you can be educated and do what you want”.
The mentor’s main task in the Syria exit program is to help re-integrate the youth into the normal life again. He can talk to them, go fishing with them, help with homework, personal problems, job advice, and even go together to the movies.
“I also practice Islam. I can tell them about how it is in the real Islam way. It is a love religion, a peace religion. It is not to go out and kill,” E.K. adds.
Story of the Grimhojvej mosque
According to the police, many of the youngsters who left for Syria were associated to a mosque in Grimhojvej, Aarhus. However, after successful dialogue with its board, the mosque became the mediator between the young men and the municipality; and that is when the traffic to Syria almost stopped.
Toke Agershou, the head of youth and leisure department in Aarhus municipality and one of the architects of the model, recalls going to the mosque and agreeing they are all part of the solution as inhabitants in Aarhus.
The mosque made the contact with the youngsters. Then, the municipality, the Info House and the intelligence service could sit in one room with the young men and have a dialogue, Agershou explains.
“That is really a Danish way of doing things. We have to be in the same room … the frustration and the anger could come into us and we handle it,” he says.
Oussama Al Saady, Chairman of the Grimhojvej mosque, acknowledges that many of those who left for Syria used to go to the mosque and they still do after they returned. However, he insists that visiting the mosque does not mean they are affiliated with it.
“We do not have an organization, a movement, or a party. It is a mosque and it is open for everyone,” Al Saady says. “We do not discuss Jihad, and combats here. It is not the place for that,” he confirms.
Al Saady, a Danish citizen with Palestinian background, refers to the mosque as the “corner stone” for the success of the Aarhus model.
“This success was because the Danish authorities decided to reach out instead of brutalizing, and this is what is needed even in Muslim countries,” Al Saady says. “Reaching out for the Islamic associations was the right track,” he explains.
According to Police Commissioner Allan Aarslev who is in charge of the police end of the program, some of those who have returned from Syria are still very religious but they have managed to reintegrate themselves. “Some are still Salafi Muslims; however, they do not seem to be a problem to our society. They have jobs and education,” Aarslev says.
Interview with Chairman of the Grimhojvej Mosque Oussama Al Saady
As for most of the Western world …
Since it initiated the exit program, the city of Aarhus has been both subject of extreme criticism and admiration.
According to a research by Brookings institutions in 2015, most Western European states have resorted to more repressive measures to avoid potential threats by returning fighters, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and France.
Author of Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, and Warrior Princess, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University, Anne Speckhard criticizes some countries’ hardline strategies in dealing with returning fighters. “I think that is a terrible shame; these are their sons and daughters and a loving family always takes its children back,” Speckhard says.
Speckhard recognizes that there is always a risk to radicalize again. “A drinker may not drink for 20 years and still relapses,” she says. However, she explains that those who came back willingly and admitted are not likely to go again.
As for Denmark, it was not necessarily an option how to deal with the homecoming citizens. “It is not a question of pursuing our way of doing things and another way. It is a matter of doing something,” the mayor says.
As police commissioner Allan Aarslev explains, Denmark does not have the legal means to prosecute these returnees. “I am quite convinced that what we are doing in this field is better than doing nothing and this is what we are up against,” Aarslev says.
“Your son is Shahid”
Not the whole city has had a happy ending, even with the Aarhus model.
Out of 35 who have left, 6 were killed and never came home.
One young Danish man, getting so deep into his new religion, went all the way from Denmark to Egypt, Syria … and finally Iraq. A young Christian boy growing up with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), he had such a tough childhood. When he was 18, he was introduced to Islam and suddenly turned into a happy smiling kid. His family was shocked but they encouraged him. “If he is happy, we are happy,” they believed. Suddenly, the young man changed. He withdrew himself from the family life; and then went off to Cairo for Quranic school. His mother went down for a visit and could not recognize her own son. In March 2013, the parents learned that he left for Syria. And a few months later, the father got a text message from Iraq saying his son is "Shahid" (a martyr). As he believed very hard in one idea of “life after death,” the young man kept seeking martyrdom … and he eventually blew himself up in a suicide attack South of Baghdad.
12 other youngsters are still in Syria. According to the police, they left Aarhus in 2012 and are not expected to come back.