29 Sep 2014

Can returning jihadis be reintegrated into society?

Home Affairs Correspondent

While the UK imposes stringent measures on returning jihadis, some countries are more liberal. Channel 4 News obtains rare footage of a Danish programme that seeks to bring them back into the fold.

Inside the Marselisborg Memorial Park in Aarhus, a long, curved wall bears the names of 4,000 conscripted soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War.

But the young man who stands before it has come to commemorate 15 other Danes he believes are also heroes – jihadis who have been killed fighting in Syria.

“I believe what they did is a noble deed,” says 21-year-old Hudaytha.

He stands and recites a hadith, or saying of the Prophet Mohammed, his words echoing around the park. If Hudaytha lived in the UK, he’d likely be facing be facing arrest, as he’s just returned home after fighting with Islamist militants in the conflict.

“I went to the battlefields a lot of times. My main work on the battlefield was with the heavy machine guns, to shoot towards the airplanes of (President) al-Assad when they came. Other times I would have a gun and I would go and do an attack on certain checkpoints. I saw a lot of things, I saw injured people, dead people.”

But do his experiences on the battlefield mean he poses a threat to those around him? Hudaytha is now back on the streets of Aarhus, Denmark’s second city – a city that has seen dozens of its young men joining the jihad. Now the authorities have now introduced a unique programme to help those who return home reintegrate back into society.

Channel 4 News has obtained rare footage of the programme, including interviews with the fighters themselves filmed by journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem.

They are all offered practical help – ranging from treatment for shrapnel wounds, to psychological counseling, or help with job applications.

Hudaytha wants to go back to college and the programme has helped him enrol on an engineering course. He says he is settling back down but still often remembers his experiences in the conflict. “Sometimes, when I got to sleep, I think about my time in Syria and how it has affected me.”

Ibrahim, another fighter who agreed to be interviewed, is just a teenager. He regularly meets Hudaytha at one of the city’s gyms, where they train together. “I like to do regular things. So I go to school, I pump iron, afterwards I eat ice cream.”

Radicalise

There are a community of ex-fighters living here. But concerns have been raised about whether they pose a threat. Intelligence agencies across Europe have warned that some fighters may return and radicalise others or plan bombing campaigns in their home countries. Both Hudaytha and Ibrahim deny this.

Ibrahim said: “Not everything you see about Syrian fighters is true. They do not go to Syria to learn how to make a bomb. If they wanted to learn how to make a bomb they would do it on the internet, it’s easier.”

Before he can join the programme, each fighter is assessed so that the police can identify his needs – but also identify whether he poses a threat. Anyone believed to have fought with the Islamic State or broken the law may still face prosecution.

Channel 4 News has obtained rare footage of one of these assessments – as Hudaytha sat down to meet Steffen Nielsen from East Jutland Police. Mr Nielsen says the programme is a collaboration between many different agencies that can help the fighters to access local services. It’s based on a model to help ex-gang members leaving prison.

Hudaytha described how he came to join the programme. “About two or three weeks after I came back, two men came knocking at my door and said they were from the intelligence services. I wasn’t nervous, because I knew I had done nothing wrong, I had only gone to Syria to help the people. They asked me lots of questions and I told them I was part of an Islamic brigade. They offered me lots of help, they want me to get on with my studies.”

Early prevention

I asked Mr Neilsen why he thinks their approach works. He told me: “Everybody is in agreement, early prevention of terrorism is needed. And so we start out with dialogue. We screen each fighter, we assess their needs. We engage with their families and friends, and their mosque, so that they have a well-functioning network around them. This can reduce the risk of them being further radicalised.”

But there are some who believe the approach is too soft. I ask Mr Neilsen how he can be sure that the fighters haven’t committed atrocities or fought for proscribed groups. “There is always a risk”, he tells me. “But the flaw would be to apply tough measures to soft targets, people who are not that radicalised. We believe there are fighres we can still turn around. If you apply harsh measures to them it would be counter-productive, because you risk producing the very violent extremists you are trying to prevent.”

The police say their method works because they have gained the trust of the city’s Muslim communities – in the past, there have been tensions here and the city earned a reputation for extremism.

Of the men who joined the jihad, 22 left from the Grimhojmoskeen mosque, which has repeatedly denied accusations that it encourages them to go and fight. It now works with the police and supports its programme. The chairman Oussama El Saadi told Channel 4 News: “Here at the Islamic centre, we don’t encourage anyone to go to Syria, nor do we discourage anyone either. We recognise that we are in this country and we observe the obligations upon us. However, at the same time, we cannot conceal or water down aspects of this religion either.”

The mosque says it now works with the police and supports the programme. And the police believe that, in the past year, only one fighter from the city has left for Syria. But the Danish intelligence services warn that there are still extremist recruiters targeting the vulnerable. A militant group linked to the Islamic State recently filmed a video in a park in Aarhus, urging support for jihad. Some politicians in Denmark now want to see harsher measures against Islamists.

I spoke to Lene Espersen, the country’s former deputy prime minister and leader of the Conservatives.

Frightening

“The development we have seen in Denmark is frightening. We have the second highest number of fighters going to Syria and Iraq in Europe, compared to the size of our population. I’m really worried because we have given the message that it is OK to go and fight.

“Some of our youngsters even boast that they have been and come back several times. I want to see harsher measures. We need to consider whether we can strip them of their passports, perhaps even take away their welfare benefits. We don’t want to fund them if they are going to come back here and plan attacks.”

But the fighters told us that harsher measures would only be counter-productive. “If you take away people’s passports, for example, that will only cause more problems. If you treat them like criminals, they will only have more hatred in their hearts and then they might take revenge, because they will think ‘you have taken away my passport, you have destroyed my life’.”

Bombing campaign

Denmark’s parliament is to debate whether or not to adopt tougher measures similar to the UK’s. The country also recently joined the American-led bombing campaign. Hudaytha warned that this may further radicalise young men. “I don’t think the bombing campaign itself will encourage other fighters but certainly if they start sending troops on the ground it will encourage a new generation to go to Syria.”

And what of that new generation? Hudaytha went to Syria twice but came home because his wife was expecting their first child. At his home in Aarhus, he cuddles their baby to his shoulder. “It’s a great feeling when you hold your son. When he’s older, I won’t hold him back, I will tell him it’s up to yourself if you want to go to fight jihad.”

The programme in Denmark is judged a huge success. And yet, Hudaytha says he may yet still go back to Syria. “It is still my intention to go back one time, even though my son is born now.”

Could other countries learn from the Danish approach? There are 3,000 European fighters now thought to be in Syria and Iraq. Many will be killed there. But many others will want to return home.

Follow Darshna Soni on Twitter.