While much of the Western world is proposing to ban the return of Muslims who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a pioneering project in Denmark is trying to reach out to those who return or are tempted to join the fight with the aim of rehabilitation, according to a report in the New York Times.
The project, based in a Danish town, focuses on helping these “wayward youths who deserve a second chance” rather than treating them as criminals or terrorists.
The program, which is falling under close scrutiny from the rest of Europe, works to help onetime fighters, providing them with counseling, helping with readmission to school, liaising with parents and other outreach efforts, the paper said.
But when it was created in 2007 it had a different remit: Dealing with far-right extremists linked to an Aarhus soccer club – a problem which has declined in recent years.
Most European countries are taking a hard line with the growing number of Muslims travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS and what to do when - and if - they return home. Generally the attitude is to either jail them or place them under investigation.
The Netherlands has even gone to the extent of barring some Syrian fighters from returning altogether, an approach the British government has suggested it might also consider.
London Mayor Boris Johnson of London told British newspaper The Daily Telegraph: “We need to make it crystal clear that you will be arrested if you go out to Syria or Iraq without a good reason.”
But Denmark is bucking the trend, according to the New York Times report.
With the second highest number of foreign fighters, Denmark has chosen to go against the flow and look toward rehabilitation, rather than retribution.
Jacob Bundsgard, the Social Democrat mayor of Danish city Aarhus told the newspaper: “We cannot afford not to include them back in our society and make sure that their path of radicalization is changed, so they can be an active part of our society,”
Police reports in the Danish city suggest 31 of its local Muslims travelled to Syria to join the fight against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad – just one went this year. Five, including two women, have been killed and 16 have since returned home – the newspaper added.
Jorgen Ilum, the region’s chief of police, told the newspaper: “What we are doing seems to be working,” He said the program was a “crime prevention” exercise that seeks to “protect society from extremists.”
And while he admitted this was by no means a simple task, it was not a system that looked to “mollycoddle jihadists.”
It is not unreasonable that the program is falling under such scrutiny – for many the fear of a repeat of the incident that saw Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French Muslim, return from Syria and then kill four at the Brussels Jewish Museum is just too great.
This concern is not taken lightly in Aarhus, where the returnees are screened by the police. So far none of the 16 who returned home has been arrested. Instead they have been mentored in what has become known as the “exit program for radicalized citizens.”
Mentors work with the young adults – most are under 30 – building on gaining their trust, explaining that militancy has no place in the Muslim world and by exposing the flaws in their interpretation of their faith.
According to the New York Times article, there does seem to be evidence that the program is working. One 21-year-old man of Turkish descent who spent 13 months fighting in Syria alongside militants now passes his days playing soccer, training at the gym and waiting anxiously to see if he has secured a place to study engineering at a well-regarded local university.
“I feel at home. I have no problems here,” the former Islamist militant told the newspaper.
It is possible other countries might follow suit: last week British Prime Minister David Cameron travelled to Turkey where the two countries discussed the issue of militants crossing into Syria and Iraq. The two countries appeared to show a united force after Turkey came under criticism for apparently opening its border to militants crossing over to fight.