Inside the counter-extremism programme that is preventing terrorism

Inside the counter-extremism programme that is preventing terrorism
In-depth: Has a city in Denmark cracked the puzzle of fighting terrorism?
7 min read
08 August, 2017
Danish Muslims are involved in the counter-radicalisation strategy, rather than being focus of surveillance [Getty]
How do you fight extremism? With the rise in terror attacks in recent years, the search for an answer is becoming increasingly pressing.

Since 9/11, Western nations have concentrated heavily on extremism inspired by al-Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State group. Governments have spent millions on "counter-radicalisation" programmes, which have yielded little proven success and plenty of criticism.

But one scheme seems to be bucking the trend. Not only is it appearing to prevent radicalisation but, crucially, it has the support and trust of local communities.
Aarhus programme

In 2013, 38 people left the city of Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, for Syria. But since early 2015, not one person has left - something that has been credited to the city's anti-radicalisation programme.
"The reason for nobody going to Syria now is that we have pinpointed the problem in the city," says Allan Aarslev, a police superintendent of the East Jutland Police, who has been spearheading the initiative.
"We pulled this problem out into the open so everyone can see that it's a problem," he adds.

Rather than surveillance - a much-criticised feature of the British Prevent strategy - the programme concentrates on engaging with communities. Aarslev says the scheme "looks to help" - it is not about spying and punishing people.

Efforts to prevent radicalisation in Aarhus started with a pilot project in 2007 and their approach was no different from any other crime prevention strategy.

Initially the programme targeted right and left wing extremists. Aarslev says this history of dealing with extremism of all backgrounds made it easier to win over the Muslim community when the emphasis changed to those connected with Syria in mid-2013.

"It was obvious to Muslims living in our city that it wasn't a matter of religion, it was a matter of extremists," says Aarslev, who has been investigating extremism for the past ten years of his 34-year police career.

Aisha mosque
Having good ties with the local community, especially the biggest mosque in the city, was important.

Aisha mosque, often called Grimhøjvej due to the name of street it is on, saw some of its worshippers leave for Syria when the civil war first erupted in 2011. 

"Many people in Denmark from a Syrian background - not just from our mosque - wanted to help their families," says Oussama El Saadi, chairman of the Aisha mosque. "The border was open, and people wanted to help."

But when IS started making progress in Syria, the Danish police started to act, adds the 47-year-old Palestinian.
The police and intelligence service knew we didn't send anyone to Syria, otherwise they would have closed the mosque

Aisha mosque is a traditional mosque, and El Saadi does not hide his conservative Islamic views: "If Islam says something is haram [sinful], we say it's haram. We knew non-Muslims wouldn't always like what we say but we couldn't do anything about it."

The straight-talking line from the "salafist" mosque has brought unwanted attention from the Danish media and some right-wing politicians.
Denmark's Muslims have had to contend with Islamophobia
- this is an election advert for one of the country's
conservative parties [Getty]

But El Saadi insists the mosque does not encourage criminal behaviour: "The police and intelligence service knew we didn't send anyone to Syria, otherwise they would have closed the mosque."

A criticism often levied at other counter-radicalisation programmes is that conservative and traditional Muslims find themselves under scrutiny, not just extremists. But the programme in Aarhus makes a distinction.

"I don't see any problem in being a conservative Muslim," says Aarslev. "If you focus on that, you tend not to focus on solving the problem."

The nuanced approach has got many Muslims in the community on board. "They came to us and listened to us," says El Saadi. "There was a respect for each other."

From the beginning, the mosque made its position clear to the police; it was not going to allow spying or be told what to say from the minbar: "It will get people angry and they will not talk to you," El Saadi said to the police. 

Instead, the police wanted to help families that were trying to stop their children from being lured to Syria and the mosque spoke to youngsters in the community, urging them to assist the police.

"We try to build a bridge between the police and the young," he adds. "We tell them - this is our police and we have to help them."

Battling extremism: A mother's lament for a radicalised son

It is this trust the police has built with the local community and religious institutions that separates it from other schemes in Europe, such as the UK's much-criticised Prevent scheme: "We don't have problems of building trust and I think that's one of the problems with Prevent," says Aarslev.


Those most in danger of radicalisation in Aarhus are typically men between 15-25, and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Some are religious or preoccupied with Middle East politics, but the programme works on the basis that youngsters get radicalised when they feel excluded from society.

"We could see they [people in danger of being radicalised] had a feeling of discrimination. I'm not saying they were discriminated against - but they felt marginalised without a future," says Aarslev. "And young men without a future - that's a problem for any society."

The programme seeks to re-integrate youngsters back into society and improve their life skills. Families receive guidance and counselling while consultation with the wider community is undertaken regularly.
In the beginning, we suspected we would only get terrorists back but we can say for a fact that's not the case - they are all different... Some of them are terrified by the fact they went to Syria

Since the start of 2011, a mentoring programme has been offered to youths under 18. "It's about looking into their lives and helping them with their problems," says Aarslev. "And when you help them and give them a little bit of respect, things change."

The police worked in collaboration with social workers to re-integrate those that came back from Syria in the earlier stages of the civil war. And it is this local multi-agency approach that is proving to be a success.

"In the beginning, we suspected we would only get terrorists back but we can say for a fact that's not the case - they are all different," says Aarslev. "Some of them are terrified by the fact they went to Syria - they want to forget."

Aarslev points out if they have proof of criminal behaviour, officers act: "We are the police, and we can prosecute when we have the evidence."

Of the 38 known to have left the city for Syria, 19 have returned and eight have been killed. The rest are still in Syria or presumed dead.

Aarslev does not think anyone else will return - the last returnee was a woman in October 2015. If they did, he believes there will be enough proof to prosecute as the situation in Syria has changed drastically since 2015.

Since June 2016, Denmark has made it a crime for anyone to travel to Syria without official permission. So the police can no longer deal with each returnee on a case-by-case basis either.

"It would be a problem if we saw a returnee who was part of an aid programme in Syria [now]," says Aarslev. "He would also be punished… but that's more politics than policing."


Aarslev's frustration about politics and politicians is evident. He mentions how some politicians are quick to label people "extremists" or consider his city's approach to counter-extremism as "soft".
El Saadi is also eager to point that the problem is "politicians, not the police". He says the police make them feel like Danish citizens - but not the politicians. "Some politicians get their place in parliament because of their speech against Muslims and immigrants," says El Saadi. "So they won't say nothing nice about us because it'll affect their ratings."

Despite interest from all over the world, the national government is yet to be convinced about the programme. "This is a local programme because we've convinced politicians in the city council that it's the right thing to do," says Aarslev. "We haven't been able to convince the national government yet."

He believes the programme should be replicated nationally with a focus on dealing with criminals, "not the false extremists, like religious people".

As a police officer, Aarslev's main goal, he says, is to prevent crime, not police the thoughts of people.

"We have a small sentence here when we give awareness presentations," he says. "'You can think whatever you like for political and religious reasons - but don't commit crimes.'"

Jamil Hussein is a freelance journalist covering sport, politics, current affairs, lifestyle and culture.

Follow him on Twitter: @jam1lH