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Denmark's 'Jihadist Rehab' Center Offers Counseling Rather than Jail Time

This weekend's killings in Copenhagen will stir debate on Denmark's radicalized young men. But one city is meeting even those who have fought in Syria with an alternative approach.
Photo by Michael Probst/AP

Double killings by a gunman in Copenhagen over the weekend, suspected to have been inspired by Islamic extremism, are likely to raise fears of home-grown terrorism in Denmark, as well as stirring debate over how to deal with the country's radicalized young men. North of Copenhagen, in the port city of Aarhus, a "jihadist rehab" program is providing even those who have joined armed militant groups in Syria and Iraq with counseling and assistance instead of jail time.


The Copenhagen shootings targeted a free speech debate and a synagogue, killing two and wounding five, while the suspect, 22-year-old Omar el-Hussein, was later shot dead by police. Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) head Jens Madsen subsequently said that investigators theorize that Hussein might have been inspired by the extremist-perpetrated January attacks in Paris that killed 17.

Hussein was a Danish citizen with a violent criminal record and gang connections. But unlike at least one of the Paris killers, he had not visited the Middle East or trained with a militant group, according to Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard.

These attacks, however, come at a time when returning foreign fighters are a key concern for intelligence agencies. Many Western countries are also cracking down on citizens who have joined, or are considering joining, extremist militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

At least 100 Danes have gone to fight with such organizations, which include the so-called Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, according to PET, more per capita than any country except Belgium. In September last year, Abdessamad Fateh, also known as Abu Hamza, became the first Danish national to be added to the US's global terror list.

The Aarhus scheme is designed to curb radicalization and violent extremism, mostly by tackling potential rather than immediate risks to Danish security.


It is run by East Jutland Police and Aarhus Municipality, and was set up after the 7/7 terror attacks in London and the realization that Denmark could face a similar threat, Superintendent Allan Aarslev, the regional head of crime prevention, told VICE News.

At the time, one of the main worries was seen as radical political groups and the program focused on identifying right-wing extremists who might be open to help in escaping their environment. It enlisted a team of mentors in order to help them do so.

Yet when the Syrian war began, and Islamic extremist groups began to expand there, this changed, Aarslev says. The team now concentrates on what he describes as "Syrian travelers." It was a problem that was first identified in Aarhus in November 2012 when police began to hear reports that young men from the city had gone to the country for unknown reasons.

A quiet coastal town with a central canal and large student population, Aarhus feels like odd soil for extremism — Aarslev spoke to VICE News in the central police station with seagulls audible in the background. But the deprived western suburb of Gellerupparken is home to a large immigrant population living in comparative segregation amid high unemployment and crime, an ideal environment for extremist recruiters to prey on angry and alienated young men.

While the first of Aarhus's residents to travel to Syria did so in November 2012, since then, another 28 men and two women are known to have made the journey. Most went in 2013, with only one known to have done so in 2014, and 10 have not returned. The travelers were mostly aged 15 to 25, were of mixed ethnicities, and included converts alongside those with Muslim backgrounds, according to the police.


The majority are what Aarslev described as "clever boys." "Here in Aarhus, with a few exceptions, they are all very well-educated… but they're also very religious." Most came from non-extreme backgrounds and the superintendent said he is often faced with frustrated parents who want him to do more to stop errant children from leaving. Unlike in the UK, for example, travel bans are not permitted

A large number were recruited through a specific mosque, Aarslev explained. He declines to name it, but it's widely known locally to be Grimhøj mosque. When the police discovered this, they discretely let members of the press know what was going on, and then told the mosque's board know that the information would be released in order to encourage dialogue. Its official position is now that Aarhus's young men and women should stay put, although leaders still espouse a caliphate in the Middle East.

The jihadist rehab program has made an effort to gain the trust of local communities, and those who have gone or are seen as at risk of going to Iraq or Syria are often flagged via parents, teachers, youth workers, and the like to a central information network.

It focuses on prevention, as well as cure, providing counseling for those who intend to travel to Syria, as well as their families, and informing them of the risks, both legal and physical, they face by doing so.

If they go anyway, they are screened for radicalization when they come back and given the option of further counseling. Other moves are more controversial. Returnees are also offered help for psychological and physical damage, as well as advice on pursuing work or education, housing or financial support.


There are not many other options under Danish law. It is not illegal to go to Syria, nor to be a part of armed opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army battling to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. However, it is illegal to join extremist groups like Islamic State, al Nusra, or any other organization on the terror blacklist.

It's hard for authorities to know what returnees have been doing, however. Most tell the police that they have taken part in humanitarian work, although Aarslev said they know this is not the case: "We are not so naïve that we think this is a fact, but they're not very keen to tell use what they have been doing."

It is a concern for him, but Danish law prohibits investigations being undertaken as part of a crime prevention program and Aarslev's priority is that the travelers don't commit crimes on home soil. He adds, however, that if he did find out that a returnee had been part of a criminal organization, he would pass that information along and a police investigation would begin.

Nevertheless, none of those who has traveled to Syria has been convicted of anything and Aarhus's rehab scheme has been criticized as being too lenient on returning jihadis, as well as potentially dangerous.

Aarslev seems stung by recent media coverage. "It's not the case that young men from Aarhus go to Syria, chop off people's heads, and we roll out the red carpet when they get back," he says. Instead he maintains that the program is preventing crime in the city, pointing to the vast reduction in those traveling to Syria in 2014.

A similar program has been set up in Copenhagen. But authorities there have identified many of those who went to Syrian as having — like Hussein —backgrounds of petty crime and violence. Nevertheless, Aarslev gives the same answer when asked whether the same methods would work among the Danish capital's more criminally minded extremist population. "Perhaps it would be less effective, but nevertheless it would be better than doing nothing," he said. "Our answer is that this is not [a question of] a harsh or soft method, it is a soft method or nothing… and I'm convinced that this is better than doing nothing."

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck