Still from VICE documentary The Islamic State
Of the Danish Muslims who go to Syria, some want to do humanitarian work, while others want to wage jihad. But very little is known about those who go to Syria and then return to Denmark. That's what the leader of the section for prevention of radicalization and extremism at Eastern Jutland’s police, Allan Aarslev, told me, anyway.
Nevertheless, the risk of so-called homegrown terrorism is treated very seriously. But instead of confiscating passports and threatening them with prison—measures recently brought to Denmark that are similar to suggested laws in the United Kingdom—Allan and his team are trying a different approach with returning Muslims. They offer therapy and guidance while reaching out to the parents in the community. They do this both preemptively and after the young men have come back to their communities, the idea being to reintegrate the young men into Danish society.
We gave Allan a call to hear more about the operation.
VICE: Tell us about the different aspects of your efforts.
Allan Aarslev: First of all, we provide counsel and guidance to the young men thinking about leaving for Syria. However, since it’s not illegal to travel to Syria, we can’t keep them from actually going. When someone does leave in spite of our counsel, we contact their family. They often call us when their sons return, sometimes even on the day of their arrival. We then invite them over for a talk. We get to know their situation, and figure out how we can help them return to Denmark in proper fashion.
What do you tell the young men thinking of going to Syria?
First of all, the parents are far more receptive to our messages. If we can equip them with the right knowledge, they can guide their children far better than we can. When we do talk to young people, we let them know what they’re actually signing up for in Syria. Some tell us they’re compelled to do aid work there because of their religion. We acknowledge that, but no matter their intentions, it’s almost impossible to know what you’re really getting involved in down there. Even if you just help out in a refugee camp, it might turn out that it’s run by the Islamic State. Doing that would be a criminal offense, as it’s illegal to aid organizations on the EU’s terror list. These camps also serve as recruitment stations, and they might try to send you into battle.
It’s a muddy situation, for sure.
Exactly. We urge them to use their commitment in a different way. Many of these young folks are very religious, making it difficult for us to provide guidance. In that case we ask them whether supporting the Islamic State really is the right way to achieve a caliphate.
How do they respond to that?
Sometimes they just tell us what they think we want to hear. We can’t expect them to turn themselves in, telling us about their crimes, either.
Of course not. But are you aware of any Danish individuals who travel to Syria with a militant agenda?
It is our impression that some leave for militant purposes, but we don’t actually know that. Quite a few people have left from Aarhus, so realistically some of them must have committed crimes. It’s impossible to document what goes on in a war zone, though. We just know that the returnees don’t tell us the whole truth.
And when they do leave, you stay in touch with the parents?
We have a network for parents. There are both parents whose children are likely dead, some whose sons are in Syria, and some who are nervous their boys might leave for Syria. Through the network, they support each other. We also stay in touch with them, informing them of their options. However, we’re heavily critiqued by the parents. They feel powerless and disappointed that the authorities can’t do more to keep their kids from going to Syria.
Understandably so, though it seems that might change now. Tell us, are the parents typically in contact with their children?
Some of them are. Others haven’t heard from their kids for a year. There’s a psychologist connected to the parents network who help them communicate with their children.
How should the parents handle these conversations?
Start by listening to their sons, acknowledging their decision while making sure that the sons know their parents are loyal to them. From there on, the parents can try to convince their sons to come home. It’s a very difficult situation, fearing for the life of your children.
What happens if they do return?
The parents call and tell us that their son just came home. We then call him up, and see how we can help him get a grip on life, so he doesn’t become a walking security threat. Some we’ve been able to help resume their education, which is great, because then they have something to keep them occupied. These are intelligent, young folks—most of them.
What’s your impression of the returnees?
Some have been totally stripped of extremism, while others are still radicalized. Some wanted to make a difference in Syria, but were disillusioned by the uphill situation. One came back just saying he wanted his old life back, that he’d made a mistake.
I’m sure you also have to consider whether they pose a threat to their community?
We’re very upfront about it. We let them know that we hope to help them, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re keeping PET [the Danish military intelligence service] in the loop about their status.
Doesn’t that compromise the therapeutic process?
Surprisingly not. The fact that we’re open about our position seems to foster respect more than anything else.
Do you help the returnees with health problems too?
Yes. We help them to queue up properly within the Danish healthcare system. Some have PTSD, others have physical injuries. One was shot.
Many of them must have PTSD, right?
Well, research suggests that those of serious faith aren’t affected as much by being in a war zone. In our experience, the returnees aren’t as afflicted as others might have been.
That's surprising. What kind of results have you had with the program?
We’ve established a dialogue with certain communities, who are realizing they need to work with authorities on this. They’re very well aware of how it would affect their community if a returnee from Syria committed terrorism at home. So our efforts almost benefit integration. And we’re helping these kids, of course.
Has it decreased the number of men traveling to Syria?
There’s fewer traveling to Syria now compared to last year. We can’t say whether it’s thanks to our efforts, or just that the situation has become worse in general. But since we started a dialogue with the mosque on Grimhøjvej, close to none with relations to the place have traveled to Syria.
Al Jazeera calls your efforts a “soft-hands approach." Do you see any risks in a softer approach?
I wouldn’t call it that. It makes it sound like we’re giving out prizes to people who’ve committed murder in Syria. No, it’s a dialogue-based approach where we look for alternative ways to prevent crime. The debate at home is sometimes too much about punishing as many people as possible, instead of actually preventing crime in Denmark. Our methods are not the only way to go about the problems, but they are a great, cheap supplement.
How do you feel about the more conservative solutions, like confiscating passports?
It might have an effect, but it won’t solve the problem. You can’t punish your way out of people being willing to risk their lives in Syria.