May 24th, 2014 was a horrific warning, not only for Europe, but for the U.S. as well. Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year old French citizen, went to the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium and opened fire, killing four innocent people. Nemmouche had just returned from Syria’s civil war, where he had traveled in order to fight with Islamist Jihadists against Bashar al-Assad’s government. He thus became the first foreign-born Jihadi to carry out a terrorist attack upon returning to Europe.
The risk of radicalization has become more pronounced with the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) efforts in Iraq, and the intensifying effect it is likely to have on the already-raging battle against Assad’s regime. Denmark, in particular, has had many citizens travel to the region to fight in these conflicts. To address the threat of radicalization, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) and the Ministry of Social Affairs have collaborated on the development of a Danish model for the prevention of radicalization. Denmark’s efforts are particularly noteworthy in that it is one of the only countries in the world outside of the United States taking a coordinated and staffed approach towards preventative services.
Structure of the model
The Danish Security and Intelligence Service developed a model cataloguing points of intervention in the process of radicalization, similar to those commonly used in the medical field. There are three main steps in the process of preventing the kind of radicalization which creates foreign Jihadists: outreach, capacity building and exit.
The first step, outreach, reflects no particular threats or signs of radicalization in any religious community or individual. The focus of outreach is on eliminating the conditions of society, both nationally and locally, that have the potential to turn individuals in a more radical direction. The next phase is capacity building, which should be given serious attention as it is the step where radicalization has already made its impact, but hasn’t yet resulted in extremist violence. Such violence occurs in the third step, exit.
The first step, outreach, is the responsibility of the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs. working in cooperation with national and local NGOs and community leaders—teachers, coaches, mentors, parents, and religious figures. Such leaders are a key facet of the Ministry’s outreach efforts, as they can often exert a larger influence than official authorities on the minds of the young people who are most at risk of radicalization. The other key component of Danish outreach efforts is a continuous dialogue with the communities that are most often affected by radicalization. The dialogue is absolutely essential regarding this initial effort, and that is truly a cornerstone for the Danish model; the continuous dialogue.
In the capacity building phase, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) assumes responsibility from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Capacity building refers to PET’s aim of developing relationships with influential members of the community and making them an asset in preventing radicalization. PET and its workers in the field also focus on groups and individuals whom they know to be at risk for radicalization. These field workers receive extensive training in preventive work, and act as crucial intermediaries in a dialogue between civil society and potential extremists. There are several warning signs, such as skipping school all of a sudden or keeping a new distance from friends and family, which can precede the decision to become a Jihadi, and the field workers of the PET are professionally trained to spot these signals and encourage a different path.
The exit stage represents individuals are beyond the point of intervention from members of their community. However, the Danish government and PET still focus on preventive work that can protect the community from these individuals. The security threat from an individual who has just participated in what can best be described as religiously-motivated extremism abroad, most likely with ISIS in Syria in this context, forms a great risk upon returning home to the West. Mehdi Nemmouche made this very clear. In Denmark, PET focuses on making direct contact, preferably through person-to-person meetings with the family, friends, and acquaintances of the returning foreign fighter, in order to neutralize the potential for domestic attacks as a result of increased radicalization abroad.
Aarhus – a proven success
The Grimhøj mosque in Aarhus, Denmark, has been the place where most of the Danish jihadists have come from. Last year, at least 27 young individuals, including 23 with connections to that mosque, went from Aarhus to Syria to fight. After a coordinated effort by PET to initiate a dialogue with the mosque’s leaders, not a single person this year has left Aarhus to engage in jihad in Syria. There have been positive results in integrating returning foreign fighters via job counseling and education, a free service provided by the Danish government, in an effort to eliminate domestic terror and violent extremism. The Aarhus example has shown that the Danish model, with its emphasis on dialogue as the key to success, works effectively. However, there is a caveat to keep in mind.
Violent behavior cannot be tolerated – not even abroad
The Danish model has shown impressive results. The mere fact that there is a targeted effort to tackle the problem makes it stand out from most other countries’ effort. There is one major issue with the model though, and that is the lack of ability in Danish law to prosecute foreign fighters upon their return. Any citizen of a country who kills people, regardless of it being in what they perceive to be war conditions, should not be able to get away with no trial. When foreign fighters pose with their Kalashnikovs, an ISIS-flag in the background, this should at least be enough to prompt criminal proceedings in a Danish court.
However, the essence of the Danish model, the dialogue, should always be the preferred solution to preventing the proliferation of foreign fighters in the first place. But there will always be some individuals who cannot be reached with words. These individuals may still go to Syria to fight regardless of their government’s efforts to stop them. It is these individuals, often very young, against whom laws are needed, so we protect both themselves and everyone around them, domestically and internationally. It’s a very difficult situation though, since no government can deny one of its citizens the right to leave the country based on a behavioral prediction. This is the core predicament: knowing there is a high risk for someone to do something terrible abroad, but not being able to stop them from leaving, because they haven’t yet done anything illegal.
Everyone listens to their mother
Even though some women travel abroad to join extremist groups, such as ISIS in Syria, the vast majority of foreign fighters are men. A lot of them have a strong attitude of contempt for authority. They go to war in order to be a part of something, to be someone, to create a ‘tough guy’ image—in essence, to have their own version of an existential quest, like most young people around the world. These young men can’t be stopped through dialogue with the police or social authorities. But most of them will listen to their mother. The truth is that most families are devastated when they realize their young son may be going abroad to fight. If the families, and especially the mothers, could be better included in the preventive efforts, they might have a positive impact. PET and the social services can engage in a dialogue with the mother, giving her the needed education and tools to help prevent her son or daughter from leaving. This would be particularly crucial for those who are on the fence about going.
Government vs. Civil society
PET points out that the Danish model has two main sources of preventive operations: government and civil society. So far, most resources have been focused on the government.
In the future, both PET and the Ministry of Social Affairs would like to see a comparatively greater effort to include civil society. The idea is that preventive actions can be very effective when coming from those who are in daily contact with these potential foreign fighters. That could be a schoolteacher noticing something odd and radical in a paper, or a soccer coach seeing a very different young man at practice all of a sudden. Not only should civil society be further included in the work of spotting the warning signs as early as possible, it should also act as a counter to the negative influence that these young often people receive from religious extremists. This won’t happen overnight, but it should be the result of more education of civil society by PET, the police and social authorities.
A threat the world can’t ignore
Since the summer of 2012, more than 100 individuals have travelled from Denmark to participate in the conflict in Syria. Not all of them are a threat, since there can be a lot of reasons, some non-violent, to participate in the conflict. But a considerable number of the travellers are given high attention by PET. If PET gathers intelligence about someone travelling to Syria who might never have been there before, the odds of them being actively involved in fighting during their stay are high, and PET will initially label them ‘foreign fighters.’ It must simply be acknowledged that the chances of radicalization and violent extremism are considerably higher after a visit to Syria, violent and unstable as it currently is.
This is only one example of the growing phenomenon of foreign fighters, and the trend will only continue to increase unless serious preventive actions are taken. The Danish preventive model for radicalization and extremism might not be the entire solution, but it’s a much-needed initiative that the US should take a close look at and learn from. This new trend of foreign fighters is more prevalent in Europe, but the number of foreign fighters from the US will only increase from now on if a coordinated and systematic approach in the US is not launched as soon as possible.