Conservative estimates of foreign fighters originating from European countries in Syria and Iraq were at around 4,000 in October 2014. The number has risen significantly since then. With the majority of the European foreign fighters originating from France, the UK, and Germany, the most concentrated recruitment campaigns are in Belgium, and the Nordic countries.
Denmark, a country of 5.6 million people, has had a particular problem as being the highest Nordic European supplier of foreign fighters to join ISIS, with latest figures suggesting that per capita, Denmark recruits 40 people per million population. What has previously been overlooked as a Middle Eastern issue has become a national one. Instead of locking up returning jihadist, enacting mass surveillance laws, and cracking down on hate preaching, Danes have attempted to stem the flow of radicalised foreign fighters and de-radicalised returning fighters through conversation. This innovative approach comes from the Denmark’s second largest city, Århus.
The Århus model is a radical counter-terrorism project adopted by local Scandinavian communities to prevent and rehabilitate radical jihadists. The ingenuity of the prevention mechanism is astonishing and quite simple. Officials and community leaders provide free psychological counselling to aspiring extremists and the ability to talk with de-radicalised and fellow-Muslims, they help expose the ideology for what it is. Rather than demonizing the ideology’s action, the fellow Muslims reason with people keen on fighting in Syria or Iraq. Disproving the propaganda fed to young marginalised Muslims has so far, succeeded. The mayor of Aarhus, Jacob Bundsgaard says, “we cannot pass legislation that changes the way they think and feel. What we can do is show them we are sincere about integration, about dialogue.”
Returnees are of particular concern, which is why the Danes have redoubled their efforts at ensuring they return to ‘normal’ life, providing job-seeking support, university spots and meaningful community assimilation. Under Danish law, anyone who has not committed a criminal offence is helped to re-integrate within society. So rather than galvanizing returned individuals by intrusively monitoring them, returned Danes are not fearful of their extremist past. And although many disagree with this soft-touch approach, instead advocating for a hard-line crackdown on hate preachers and Islamist propaganda online, not one returnee Danish fighter has been imprisoned.
Key to the success of Århus is early intervention. The mayor of Århus says the success is based on strong cooperation in the local community and the presence of both preventative and punitive measures. Whether this all-encompassing effort is possible in the rest of Europe, or the world for that matter, needs to be debated.