Community Response: A Danish Answer to Radical Jihad
EUROPE, 2 Mar 2015
The murders in Copenhagen have refocused attention on a thorny question for Europe: How can radical jihadists returning from Syria be reintegrated? The Danish city of Aarhus may have found an answer.
If you ask Allan Aarslev, the friendly blond police commissioner from Aarhus, about his almost globally famous program, he answers with numbers. He mentions, for example, 31, 16 and one.
In 2013, he says, 31 Muslim men from Aarhus left for Syria with the intention of joining the radical jihadists of Islamic State (IS). Five of them have since lost their lives and 10 remain in the war zone. But 16 have returned to Aarhus, either for a rest before rejoining the fight, or to remain in Denmark and, as Aarslev says, perhaps become a danger closer to home.
But the program he designed for those returning from Syria has ensured that no such danger has developed. Indeed, since the project began only a single man from Aarhus has traveled to Syria to join the war. “One single person,” says Aarslev, doing his best to sound humble. The young men who live here in Aarhus, he says, are much less radical than they were just one year ago.
Denmark can use that kind of comforting news these days. The two murders committed just over a week ago by Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, a 22-year-old with Palestinian roots, have hit Denmark’s liberal society hard. And they have reignited the debate that was triggered by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris: How can a society that holds freedom of opinion to be an inalienable right prevent political-religious violence?
Copenhagen was a rather grim place to be last week with police officers armed with machine guns standing at bus stops and in front of shopping centers, helicopters buzzing low over the city and the shriek of sirens frequently piercing the air. Last Monday’s large demonstration, which saw 30,000 people gather at Gunnar Nu Hansens Plads in the heart of the city, did little to alleviate the shock — even if Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt proclaimed that all Danes had joined hands in the face of such difficult times.
Everywhere, though — in the editorial offices of newspapers like Politiken, for example, and at police headquarters in Copenhagen — people were talking about the pilot program in Aarhus. Indeed, the city’s mayor even flew to Washington recently at the invitation of President Barack Obama to talk about the Aarhus project, says Commissioner Aarslev. The city has received 150 requests from across the globe for more information and delegations are constantly visiting.
The program is almost naive in its simplicity. A significant number of the some 250 people involved work as scouts whose job it is to spot young Muslim men who have become radicalized. Once identified, they are approached by authorities in conjunction with a local Muslim cleric in the hopes of turning them away from violence. It is essentially a vast screening program for potential terrorists. And the strange thing is: It appears to be working.
Commissioner Aarslev says he is proud of what they have thus far achieved, though he never forgets to praise his people and the others involved in the program. He is particularly effusive when speaking of one man: a bearded Salafist who is head of the Grimhøjvej Mosque in Aarhus, where many of the young men who left Aarhus to join the war in Syria were regulars. It’s leader is a man named Oussama El Saadi.
Aarslev, the friendly Danish policeman, and Saadi, the Salafist with Palestinian roots, could hardly be more different. Aarslev is the older of the two, a slim, wiry man of 54. Saadi is nine years his junior and speaks Danish, Arabic and English with a guttural accent. As a young man, he fled the West Bank with his parents when, he says, the Israeli’s razed the village they called home. Due to a bout with polio as a child, he is forced to use crutches. “But my heart is strong,” he says.
Denmark became his home 24 years ago — or at least it became his country of residency. His true home is the world of God and an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam. Salafists even refuse to shake women’s hands.
A Disturbed Loner
Nevertheless, these two men have joined forces in a project that is seeking to find answers to questions that are plaguing the entire continent of Europe: What can be done about radical returnees from Syria? What measures are available to counter the terror which once again seems to be threatening the West closer to home?
In recent days, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, head of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, has called for a substantial increase in surveillance efforts, with more video cameras and a greater police presence. With elections coming up this autumn, his party is also demanding that Islamists be treated with severity.
But Khatera Parwani, a lawyer whose family roots extend to Afghanistan, says that such an approach is misguided. And she should know what she’s talking about: Parwani is a legal advisor to the Copenhagen quarter of Nørrebro, where the assailant Hussain came from. It is a place with Muslim gangs and radical organizations with names like Kaldet til Islam or Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Nobody, people say, knows this gang world as well as Parwani does.
She describes Hussein as a disturbed loner who didn’t really belong anywhere — a talented kickboxer who was violence-prone, volatile and paranoid. He smoked excessive amounts of hash and increasingly suffered from delusions. He spent some time behind bars for stabbing someone and had just been released two weeks before the attack.
The decisive phase of Hussein’s radicalization process appeared to take place when he was behind bars, a story similar to that of the Paris assailants, the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi in addition to Amedy Coulibaly, who laid siege to the Jewish supermarket. The Danish union representing prison staff recently warned that violent criminals such as Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein are increasingly being introduced to radical ideology by extremists behind bars.
“Hussein was totally disoriented and was searching for an identity. He was the perfect victim for those with Islamist-radical backgrounds searching to recruit the next best crackpot for an attack,” Parwani says. It is a pattern she often sees, she says, which is what makes the Aarhus project so interesting. Rather than emphasizing surveillance, it focuses on attention and integration. “In Aarhus, they are approaching the project from below, from the street,” she says.
Eighty Different Nationalities
That approach has much to do with Commissioner Aarslev. He spent years as a criminal investigator but ultimately no longer wanted to chase after the bad guys. He wanted to prevent them from becoming bad in the first place.
The Brabrand neighborhood in Aarhus is split in two by a through-road called Silkeborgvej. The staid middle class lives on one side while the other is essentially a slum. Saadi’s mosque can be found in the more dangerous half, a densely populated parallel world made up of 23 concrete blocks built in a muddy field. The few thousand people who live there represent some 80 different nationalities, including Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Sudanese, Yemenis, Somalians, Algerians and Nigerians. Danes, though, are few and far between.
Those who grow up here and who also have the bad luck to have dark hair and a name like Ahmed, says mosque leader Saadi, experience a discrete form of discrimination as soon as they leave the quarter. They aren’t persecuted as such, he says, but they aren’t particularly liked either. Danes tend to keep them at arm’s length, Saadi says. “The boundaries are invisible, but perceptible,” he says.
It gradually became apparent that some 80 percent of the young Muslims who traveled to Syria to join the jihad, says Aarslev, were regulars in Saadi’s mosque. “That didn’t necessarily mean that Saadi had convinced them to join the fight,” the police commissioner says, telling the story of his first meeting with the cleric. “It only meant that we needed to talk to him.”
At the end of 2013, Aarslev paid a visit to Saadi. Neither of the men is willing to discuss how exactly Aarslev convinced Saadi to cooperate. But the cleric ultimately agreed to help and the two went on to jointly develop a counterterrorism program that is based on early recognition, cordiality and integration.
What separates the Aarhus program from so many other such projects is its use of the bottom-up principle. In total, some 250 people work with the project, with 120 to 130 of those being so-called scouts, or “monitors” as Aarslev calls them. They include street workers, teachers and parents, all of whom were provided with psychological training to prepare them for the work they were being asked to do.
Legal and Okay
Once these scouts identify someone who displays signs of dangerous radicalization — by withdrawing, praying more, listening to religious music or dressing differently — they pass the man’s name along. Furthermore, when they learn that someone has just returned from Syria and is behaving erratically, they ask around to learn more — thoroughly but discreetely — or they speak with the returnee themselves.
Should their suspicions become more concrete, a team of perhaps 10 people is assembled to collect as much information as possible about the person in question. They speak to his friends and talk to his siblings and parents. Only then do they decide whether or not to invite him in for an informal chat on the third floor of Aarhus police headquarters.
It is for meetings such as these that Saadi is needed. Indeed, they wouldn’t be possible without him. He speaks with the men, exerting his influence as best he can and, if desired, will even become a steady point of contact for them. Aarslev and his team — which includes people from the youth welfare office, a mentor and a psychologist — strive to keep the atmosphere as relaxed as possible.
The message that Aarslev seeks to impart with Saadi’s help is a simple one: We have nothing against the fact that you are religious. We also have nothing against the fact that you went to Syria or are planning to go again, as long as you don’t do anything against the law while there. We have nothing against your view of the world, even if it is different from our own. We accept all of that, because it is legal and okay. Indeed, it is none of our business.
But, they say, there is a red line, one which delineates legal activity from illegal activity under Danish criminal law. Criminal activity or human rights violations perpetrated in Syria will not be tolerated and those who seek to break the law in Denmark will be prosecuted.
“We offer our help,” Aarslev says. “The mentor meets with the young man and helps if he wants to go back to school or if he wants to begin a work-training program. The mentor helps with the paper work. We are signaling that we don’t see these young men as foreign. Rather, we see them as Danes, as one of us, as friends.”
“It works,” he says, and Saadi nods in agreement. It is difficult to say exactly what Saadi’s motivation is for cooperating, but at some point he must have understood that it could become dangerous for him were his mosque to be seen as a hotbed of terror. At the same time, he doesn’t want to lose his influence over the young men. And thirdly and most importantly, he believes what he is telling them: That each Muslim must make his own decision together with Allah. When someone decides he must travel to Syria to fight for God, Saadi says, then he respects that decision.
Saadi calls that night to tell us that one of the young men in the program is prepared to speak with us. The meeting takes place the next morning in Oussama El-Saadi’s office. The young man sitting on the black sofa is both tense and self-confident, requesting that he be called Abdullah. He says he is 20 years old, is a student of engineering and that his favorite subjects in secondary school were mathematics and physics. Still, despite his interest in natural sciences, he found his way to religion, he says. He comes from a large family and says that he has a good relationship with his parents, who are more liberal in their interpretation of Islam.
When asked why he went to Syria, he responds by saying that the real question is why one shouldn’t have gone to Syria when one, as a devout Muslim, sees that other Muslims were fighting there against an unjust regime. He says he went there to offer his assistance. Initially, he says, he worked in camps, helping to treat the wounded and delivering supplies. Later, he says, he did other things. When we ask if that meant that he joined the fight, Abdullah hesitates, searching for the correct formulation. He does not explicitly say yes.
Our conversation turns toward the videos of the horrific executions perpetrated by Islamic State and Abdullah deplores the hypocrisy of the West in response. Doesn’t Saudi Arabia publicly decapitate death row inmates using a sword, he asks? And isn’t Saudi Arabia a Western ally?
Abdullah is careful about what he says, fearing legal consequences. But he also doesn’t want to remain silent in the face of unfairness and suffering in the world. God, he says, is on your side if you dedicate yourself to him. Once you do, he continues, life becomes simple because God has a plan for every person. Abdullah claims he survived his stay in Syria because his premature death wasn’t part of God’s plan. And now he’s back in Denmark.
Is he interested in returning to Syria to continue the fight? “No,” Abdullah says. “I can work here for God and his faith. That is one thing I’ve learned.”
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