Denmark has the second-largest per capita contingent of citizens fighting in Syria among Western nations.
As an alternative to the harsh prosecution of ’war crimes’ routinely applied across the globe, an innovative programme in Aarhus aims to rehabilitate returning Danish IS fighters and reintegrate them into society.
According to the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET), over 100 Danes have left for Syria, and at least 15 casualties have been recorded. “From Aarhus, there are about 30 to 32,” says Steffen Nielsen, a crime prevention adviser with the East Jutland police, and a key figure with the rehabilitation programme.
The programme is a collaboration between the East Jutland police and social services in Aarhus Council. The Aarhus model offers treatment to returning fighters and humanitarian volunteers, including medical care and counselling for psychological trauma, as well as assisting them with finding work or resuming education.
Nielsen says the programme aims to effectively reintegrate those returning by establishing a new trust with the authorities, starting with an open line of communication.
“Often it’s the family that tells us they have returned home,” Nielsen explains. “The returnee then takes part in screening conversations that determine their activities abroad, how much of a security threat they might be, what they need in terms of physical or psychological treatment, and finally the location of their family and if any additional support is required.”
Following the assessment, Nielsen says those deemed immediate security threats are passed on to security services, while the locally anchored programme facilitates the rehabilitation of the ‘soft targets’.
“The crucial point of intervention are people who we assess as not being immediate security threats, but who appear to have the potential. We believe we can still reach them,” Nielsen explained.
“A large portion of those from Aarhus have come back. Some have been killed, but we have helped around 10 to 15.”
Aarhus’ method has come under harsh criticism, reflecting concerns that many returnees have acquired highly dangerous military skills that could be used to carry out terrorist attacks at home.
The Venstre Party is proposing that those returning from Syria should have their Danish citizenship revoked, or face up to six years imprisonment.
Nielsen acknowledges these issues as legitimate concerns, but stresses that harsh punishment should not be so liberally applied, and that not all those involved should be treated or stigmatised as Jihadists or war criminals.
“Everybody that we talk to say they were actually involved in humanitarian work, regardless of whether they were fighting or not. We know that this is true for most of them, but yet we still don’t think it’s entirely harmless, as some of them will get religious schooling or basic weapons training,” he said.
“However a large portion of those returning are simply horrified by their experiences and just want to return to a normal life. For some we have to dig a little deeper, to keep them from returning to Syria.” M