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Why We Shouldn't Panic About Danish Welfare Money Going to Fighters in the Middle East

A terrorism expert told us it's unlikely militants were able to get their hands on the dough without being detected.

Aarhus, Denmark. Photo via Flickr user neindanke

Earlier this week, Denmark's Radio24syv reported on documents in which the country's Security and Intelligence Service (PET) informed government officials that about 32 people had received a total of $58,000 in state money while fighting abroad with jihadist militias like the Islamic State.

The Danish intelligence services had been investigating the issue since at least last November, although by then they had only identified 28 possible cases, and had not been able to verify almost half of them. In light of the new stats, the investigation's duration, and the fact that only one case had been reported to the authorities by those actually responsible for keeping tabs on welfare fraud, the revelations have raised concern about profligacy in the Danish welfare and unemployment system.

But for all the sensationalized news coverage around the discovery (the right-wing site Jihad Watch opened its story on the subject with the line "The jihad against the West: funded with Danish taxpayer money!"), it's rather unlikely that militants were able to actually get their hands on this dough.

Broken down per person, the state paid out about $1,800 per militant, which sounds like a lot. But these payments came from two types of Denmark's (rather generous) welfare system. The first is Dagpenge, a daily allowance for unemployment, which pays up to 90 percent of one's previous salary for up to two years after the loss of a job (adjusted according to the individual's assets and with a cap of about $587 per week). Then there's Kontanthjælp, a cash allowance for those unable to support themselves or their families due to unforeseen circumstances that pays between $1,589.17 to $2,111.61 per month depending on age and family circumstances. This suggests that militants had likely only received on average around one month's worth of payments before payments stopped.

Although Kontanthjælp claims have fewer restrictions upon them, getting Dagpenge requires regular visitations to job centers, so you'd think that not showing up because you've left for Syria would raise red flags. But according to Niels Ploug, a welfare expert at the University of Copenhagen and director of Danmarks Statistik, the system doesn't grind to a halt the second someone leaves the country, so it's not unusual that it would have taken a few weeks or so for officials to notice someone had stopped showing up to job events and freeze their benefits.

Ploug says the money militants received during this grace period would have gone directly into their persona bank accounts and, theoretically at least, been accessible to them around the world. But experts on the activities of foreign fighters in Syria at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) say it's highly unlikely active militants would have been able to use that cash.

As TRAC editorial director Veryan KahnIf put it, "If you're at the border, you can pass into Turkey and hit an ATM. But it's really risky [as it'd give up the user's location], so most don't bother."

The most noteworthy part of the latest Danish intel report may not be the sums paid out to jihadis, but the sheer proportion of those who left the country for jihad who were on the dole. As of mid 2014, PET estimated that more than 100 Danes had left the country to fight in Syria since 2011 (the country produces the most foreign militants per capita from any Western European country except Belgium). If this figure is correct, then the 28 militants identified as possibly receiving benefits at the time would account for over one-fourth of all Danish fighters in the field. This is not entirely unexpected, given the fact that social marginalization seems to play a large role in determining who leaves Europe to go off and fight with Islamic militant groups in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere.

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And it's not worth freaking out too much about the welfare-to-militants issue in Denmark, as fewer Danes appear to be leaving for jihad. The latest estimates from April indicate that 115 Danes have gone to Syria since 2011, suggesting that perhaps as few as 15 people have done so since last June. This is due at least in part to programs like the one in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, dedicated to identifying disenfranchised and radicalizing youths (or at-risk returnees from Middle Eastern battlefronts). These initiatives lean on local and Muslim leaders to convince people that they're welcome in Denmark and that there is little to be gained (and a lot lost) by fighting in Syria or elsewhere.

In fact, making a huge deal over these welfare payments may just upset that de-escalation of the radicalization and departure process. If sensationalists or nationalist politicians were to take up the issue and make a fuss about welfare reform, calling out Muslim immigrant communities as sites of fraud, then, according to Tuva Julie Smith, a researcher studying European fighters' movements to the Middle East for the Center for International and Strategic Analysis, that could serve to alienate even more Danes, pushing them toward Syria.

"I would not say that a revised welfare [system] would alienate people [in and of itself]," says Smith. "[But] they might feel discriminated against and angry if a change in [the system] were to occur. And the feeling of revenge [might] arise."

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