Tackling Islamist extremism: What the UK can learn from Denmark

The Scandinavian country's radical Aarhus model aims to rehabilitate jihadis with counselling and reintegrate them into society

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If David Cameron had stood up in Birmingham today to outline plans to defeat Islamist extremism by offering jihadists a cup of tea and a counselling session, he would have been ridiculed.

Such a statement would have been almost unthinkable for the Conservative Prime Minister, but it is one part of the radical counter-terrorism strategy being employed in Denmark.

The country, which is believed to have produced more Islamist fighters per head of population since 2012 than any other western European country except Belgium, is now at the forefront of exploring new counter-extremism strategies.

Unlike the UK’s response, which has so far focused on prosecution and prevention, Denmark is attempting to rehabilitate the radicalised young men and women lured to join Isis.

Its “Aarhus model” gives extremists mentors to counsel them and offers the chance to join self-help groups to discuss their beliefs.

Anyone returning from Syria who has not committed a criminal offence under Danish law is helped to re-integrate with society with entry to education or employment.

Elements of the UK’s existing Prevent strategy already cross over with the Danish model, including the drive for parents, teachers, friends and relatives to raise the alarm about young people in danger of radicalisation.

But it is what happens next where the two countries start to divide.

Almost 340 people were arrested on terror charges during 2014 in England, Wales and Scotland, and that number is expected to rocket this year.

Suspected crimes included fundraising for terror groups and plotting attacks, although many were listed as “preparing for acts of terrorism”, the offence used to prosecute anyone planning to join Isis abroad.

People have been arrested in dawn raids on their houses, at British airports and international borders to stop them travelling to join the so-called “Islamic State”.

But in Denmark, the government’s strategy aims at re-educating radicals and integrating them back into society, whether they are caught before travelling abroad or when they come home.

Ahmed, a Somalian-born former jihadist from Denmark, told the BBC how he was invited for a coffee with the police after his classmates raised fears that he was an “extremist capable of dangerous things”.

After a family trip to Saudi Arabia, he had started wearing traditional Islamic dress at school and admitted becoming “argumentative” about religion to his fellow teenagers.

Meanwhile, at this local mosque, he and his friends were watching jihadi videos featuring prominent radical clerics including Anwar al-Awlaki and agree that they had to fight “war with the West”.

Ahmed was on the brink of going to a suspected terror camp in Pakistan when the police called him in for a chat, offering him meeting with a fellow Muslim called Mahmoud.

He was suspicious at first, believing his mentor was a “traitor” bugged to get more information for the police, but was eventually talked around.

Now 25, Ahmed says their discussions were the only thing that prevented him from going to Pakistan.

“I'm happy right now. I see my future in Denmark. I couldn't see that before because it was all dark,” he told the BBC.

“And now that I'm actually finished with the programme. I hope that personally I'm going to be a mentor some day and help other people who have been in my situation.”

Denmark prosecutes anyone who has committed a criminal offence in another country, such as murder, but those who have not are more likely to get a job than a jail term when they return.

There are also groups offering "exit talks" to help young people get out of extremist groups.

Preben Bertelsen, a professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus who helped draw up the model taking the city’s name, said inclusion is the main principle is inclusion.

“What motivates these young people is not that far from the motivation the rest of us have: a decent life,” he told Newsweek.

“For them, joining Isis is fighting for utopia, fighting for a place where they're wanted.

"We're not stigmatising them or excluding them. Instead, we tell them that we can help them get an education, get a job, re-enter society."

February’s shootings in Copenhagen, when a Danish extremist who had sworn allegiance to Isis online murdered two people at a cultural centre and synagogue, proved that the strategy is not infallible.

But Rachel Shabi, a Middle East journalist and author, said there is much that the UK could learn.

Acknowledging that opposing groups in Denmark criticised their government’s “soft touch” approach, she said it was right to try and open a proper dialogue with extremists to change their views and ultimately use them to turn other young people away from radicalisation.

She told The Independent: “It’s not a comfortable reality – our natural instinct is to recoil from these people who would go and join this murderous death cult – but we are going to have to get over that and engage with the unpalatable truth that these people will come home, and use them as a force for good.”