If you’re trying to get back to Europe after fighting in Syria, it helps if you’re headed to Aarhus. In this lively Danish port town west of Copenhagen, authorities are giving its citizens-turned-foreign-militants a second chance.
“We see this as crime prevention,” says Jorgen Illum, the police commissioner who's in charge of Aarhus’s rehabilitation program for young jihadis. “We want to prevent young people from becoming radicalized to an extent that they might be a threat to the society.”
Around 100 Danish men — out of a country of just five million — have gone to the Middle East to fight, and more than a third of those fighters are from Aarhus alone. Illum says the city has recruited a network of psychologists, mentors and social workers to try and ease the returnees back into Danish society.
Rather than jail time, they're given medical care for their wounds, a therapist for post-traumatic stress, and even help with homework and job applications. Their parents are also offered counseling.
Illum's team interviews the returnees and asks them a series of questions to assess their needs. “Do they suffer from PTSD? Can they manage on their own? Do they need some help to get back into society?" Illum explains.
But officials try and dig a little deeper as well. Another question, lllum says, is what do they want for themselves? "We found that many of these returnees were rather disillusioned by what they had seen. It wasn’t heaven on Earth, and have a profound wish of returning to society."
The police also work with Danes preparing to leave for Syria, but it's an uphill battle. Muslim kids in Denmark are bombarded every day with messages from radical groups like Millatu Ibrahim. In one YouTube video, a bearded young many stands in a park near Aarhus, extolling the virtues of jihad while skateboarders whiz around in the background.
One of the mentors in the program has been working with a young man who has has been totally consumed by the idea of going to Syria for months. “He said to me, ‘I’m going to school but I can’t concentrate. I’m in the classroom physically, but mentally, I’m not there,” says Lars, who asked that his real name be withheld.
Lars says he's making progress with the young, but admits that "it’s a long process. But now, [the young man] to me, ‘It’s very helpful what we are doing together and I now have now got some new perspective and I don’t want to go to Syria any more.”
The city’s rehabilitation program does have skeptics. Politicians in the right-wing Danish People’s Party argue that allowing these fighters back in puts the country at risk of domestic terrorism. But Preben Bertelsen, a professor of psychology at the University of Aarhus who helps train the mentors, argues that a zero-tolerance approach holds even greater risks than trying to help the returnees.
“If they are not welcomed anywhere, where should they go?" Bertelsen asks. "If they cannot come back, if there are no exit strategies or exit programs, the only thing is to seek an even more dangerous group. And the next radicalized group after ISIS will for certain pop up somewhere."
Bertelsen has numbers on his side. Police Commissioner Illum says that in 2012 and 2013, 30 men were documented leaving Aarhus to fight on Syria’s frontlines. This year, there was only one.