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Denmark offers some foreign fighters rehab without jail time -- but will it work?
Denmark's program for returning jihadis differs from the UK's approach. The UK says it takes the issue very seriously.
- Denmark has unveiled a controversial de-radicalization program for jihadis returning from Syria
- The program offers some returning foreign fighters social support without the threat of jail time
- Denmark has one of the highest proportions of citizens leaving for Syria in Europe
- Danish program lies in stark contrast to UK's more punitive approach to returning fighters
Aarhus, Denmark (CNN) -- When Omar left home in
2013, his parents thought he was going to help out at a refugee camp for
the victims of Syria's brutal civil war. But the soft-spoken Danish
student wasn't on a humanitarian mission -- he had joined the ranks of a
jihadist brigade fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But Omar -- whose name
has been changed to conceal his identity -- soon realized that what he
was seeing on the battlefield was different from what he thought he'd
signed up for.
"The place I was in,
there was some chaos between different groups and there was violence
between different groups," Omar, who is in his early twenties, told CNN.
"I went there to fight Bashar al-Assad and not to fight other Islamic
Omar didn't want to be a part of that. Fed up with the infighting, he decided to return home.
In 2013, a U.N.-sponsored
panel declared Denmark the world's happiest place to live, citing a
number of factors including life expectancy, social support and the
freedom to make life choices. But the wealthy Scandinavian country is
also becoming known for something altogether more worrying -- one of
Europe's highest rates of jihadi fighters.
At least 100 Danes are
believed to have left the country to fight in Syria and Iraq. Of 25
countries CNN surveyed last month, only three had a higher proportion of
Muslims leaving to fight.
How Denmark will de-radicalize jihadis
Denmark: Breeding ground for Jihadis?
The country is facing a dilemma: what to do when these fighters come home?
Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, thinks it has the answer -- a controversial program for rehabilitating jihadis returning home from Syria that doesn't necessarily involve jail time.
Here's how the program
works: Any returning fighter is eligible for help getting a job, a
house, an education, and psychological counseling -- just like any other
Those returning must be
screened by police, and anyone found to have committed a crime will be
put through the courts and possibly prison.
The program does not try
to change the fundamentalist beliefs of the returning fighters -- as
long as they don't advocate violence.
WATCH: How Denmark's de-radicalization program works
Aarhus seems to have an
especially acute problem with foreign fighters. More than 30 young
people -- including Omar -- left the city last year to fight in Syria.
Sixteen of them have since returned.
Omar was pursuing an engineering degree at university before he went to Syria. He has been there twice since.
Omar said he wasn't
nervous about coming back home. Unlike in some other countries, it is
not a crime in Denmark to fight in Syria.
"It wasn't illegal to
fight in Syria unless you fought for a group that was a terrorist
organization," Omar explained. "It was not a big deal for me to come
back and get back to the daily life I had before I left."
Omar knows the people
who run the de-radicalization program, but he hasn't joined it because
he doesn't think he needs help reintegrating into society. But some of
friends have joined the program and are satisfied with it.
Police here say it's a
Danish solution that's not particularly special -- it's simply a crime
prevention program with a focus on jihadis.
"We can't just put young
people in custody because they plan to go to Syria," explained Aarhus
Police Commissioner Jorgen Ilum. "It is not illegal according to Danish
law to go to Syria, but we could try to persuade the young people not to
go to Syria."
We see it as a very important crime prevention effort to try to reintegrate these people back into the society.
Jorgen Ilum, Aarhus Police Commissioner
"We could tell them
about the risks that they might encounter going to Syria. We could tell
them about the Danish legislation that makes it illegal to participate
in direct terrorist acts and if they did do they might be punished when
they come back. We could offer the parents and young people the
mentoring help or help from psychologists in order to get some tools in
how to deal with this problem."
Of the roughly 30 people
that left Aarhus for Syria last year, 22 had some sort of association
with the city's Grimhojvej Mosque, according to Ilum. Sixteen have since
returned back to Denmark.
WATCH: Why are there so many jihadis from Denmark?
The mosque has come
under severe criticism from right-wing Danish politicians who say
Grimhojvej's leaders are trying to radicalize their followers. Some have
even called for the mosque to be closed down.
Mosque officials told
CNN they were surprised that so many of their members had left for Syria
-- but said they had been working with police on the best way to
approach young Muslims.
"The only and the most
important thing that we want to see is that they don't consider us as
criminals," said Oussama El-Saadi, the mosque's chairman. "They don't
consider us as terrorists, and they recognize us as minority living in
Denmark and will continue living in Denmark and that we are a part of
El-Saadi said young
people from his mosque started traveling to Syria because they wanted to
make a difference. And El-Saadi refused to condemn the brutality of the
radical Islamist groups -- like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra -- that are
running rampant in the war-torn country.
"We are here in Denmark,
so far away from the area around there," he told CNN. "We are not
condemning or supporting any group down there because we don't have the
El-Saadi said that
jihadis returning to Denmark were probably turned off by the infighting
between the various Muslim groups battling for control of Syria, or that
they simply wanted to return to a more normal life of school and work.
Is de-radicalization possible in the UK?
The Danish program lies in stark contrast to the approach of the United Kingdom. Fighters returning to Britain often face surveillance, terror charges, and jail time.
Officials say that
roughly 500 people living in the UK have left to fight in Syria and
Iraq. Britain is also looking at measures to ban fighters from returning
home under the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPims).
There is fear that returning fighters might carry out terror activity
WATCH: Is de-radicalization possible in Britain?
Britain's approach to returning jihadis. "The UK government treat the
people in a harsh way compared to Denmark," he said. "They start taking
away people's passports and start harassing them by raiding their homes,
taking some of them to prison and these things."
"I have spoken to a lot
of Western people in Syria and nobody has ever talked about getting back
to plan to bomb these countries, as they try to make it sound like in
There are several
de-radicalization programs in the UK -- mostly aimed at preventing
people already in Britain from becoming radicalized -- but none
specifically targeted towards citizens returning from Syria. In 2008,
the British government spent £140 million on countering extremism. That
has now dwindled to just £1.7 million.
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A spokesman for
Britain's Home Office told CNN: "We take the risk of those returning
from Syria very seriously. Some of these people may have been exposed to
traumatic experiences and others may be radicalised or vulnerable to
"In the UK we work with
our partners, including the police and health service, to determine how
we can best support returnees from areas of conflict and help them
successfully reintegrate into society."
So does the Danish method actually work? Jorgen Ilum seems to think so.
"I should say that in
2014 I can see after we started this contact dialogue with the mosque
and the youth center, only one [person] to our knowledge has left to
Syria -- in comparison to 30 in 2013 before we had this contact," Ilum
Ilum said Danish
fighters have to be motivated to be productive members of society. "We
see it as a very important crime prevention effort to try to reintegrate
these people back into the society," he said. "Many of the people who
come back, they are rather disillusioned about what they have seen in
Syria. It's not what they had expected or heard or seen over the
"What we have seen is
out of the 16 that have returned ... 10 of them are now back in school
and have a job -- it seems to us that their focus is on something else
other than Syria."
Preben Bertelsen, a
professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus, has been involved
with the city's program for the last two years, providing counseling to
returning fighters. He is aware the program might not work for everyone.
"If [someone] doesn't
want our help, we can't really reach him," he told CNN. "All of these
youngsters are screened for criminal acts out there. If they have done
something like that, then the other part of society -- police
enforcement -- will take over."
It's too soon to know
whether the program will be a success in the long term. But police say
the alternative would be fighters that return and simply disappear. This
program is designed to help while also keeping a close watch.
"Young people have a lot
of feelings. So if you are going to be humble towards those returned
fighters, they will be humble towards you. If you are going to be harsh
towards them, they are going to be harsh towards you. This is how young
people think," Omar said.
In the meantime, Omar
says he will keep working to complete his education -- and that he plans
to go back to Syria after graduation.