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Denmark De-Radicalization Program Aims to Reintegrate, Not Condemn

An innovative Danish de-radicalization program seeks to help stamp out Islamist extremism by understanding, not punishing, wannabe jihadis.
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AARHUS, Denmark — If jihadi propaganda were a virus, “Albert” would see himself as a cure.

That's because his job is trying to convince vulnerable young Danish men and women not to join militant Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq as part of a groundbreaking de-radicalization program focused on providing opportunity to reintegrate versus punishment.

“[Radicalized young people] think in black-and-white terms and in relation to religion," said the mentor, who has asked to be identified only as Albert. "My task is to open up, to try and nuance the picture, try to challenge their views.”

Albert's program is based in Aarhus, a city of 300,000 in northern Denmark that has seen dozens of citizens travel to war zones in the Middle East to fight with the likes of ISIS.

Instead of threatening to arrest and imprison young people who want to join extremist groups — and those returning from war zones — Danish authorities provide the would-be fighters with housing, healthcare, help finishing school and finding work. And they're offered a mentor like Albert.

Most other European countries jail and try returning jihadis, as well as people who fight for other militant groups. Britain has been known the detain those it believes aspire to fight with terrorist groups before they even leave the country.

The Danish program’s organizers say that while it is difficult to judge exactly how successful they've been, the number of people traveling from Aarhus to fight dropped from 31 in 2013 to just one last year. An estimated 115 Danes have gone to Syria and Iraq, making the country second only to Belgium in Europe in terms of the per capita number of foreign fighters it has sent to the Middle East.

Mentors like Albert work with would-be jihadis one-on-one, lending a hand with homework, applying for drivers’ licenses and library cards, or just meeting up for coffee.

NBC News was not allowed to meet any of the program’s participants.

Albert said his latest mentee, a teenager, was so consumed by his desire to fight in Syria that he could not concentrate on school and believed that being a jihadi was the only way to show he was a good Muslim.

So, Albert said, he talked to him.

"They have to believe in society and they have to trust that you can also be a part of this society, even though you have another skin color," he said.

Not everybody is a fan of the so-called Aarhus model. Critics call it dangerous and soft, especially after a series of deadly shootings at a free speech debate and the city’s main synagogue in Copenhagen in mid-February.

“[The program] sends a signal of weakness that instead of punishing the so-called holy warriors, they’re given all the advantages of a welfare state,” Danish legislator Martin Henriksen told the Jutland Post in March.

"I do not exclude the soft approach for young people who are not yet radicalized ...but the problem is that this approach is the rule rather than the exception," said Henriksen, who represents the far-right anti-immigration Danish People’s Party.

Despite critics like Henriksen, Denmark is planning to expand the program and has earmarked $1 million for so-called jihadi rehab in other parts of the country.

Aarhus Police Superintendent Allan Aarslev, who helped create the program, disputes the suggestion it is easy on would-be jihadis.

"Our program [is] difficult ... it demands strategy, it demands skills,” he said, adding that if anyone involved is suspected of committing a crime they will be prosecuted.

The program uses the same methods as community policing — communication between teachers, counselors, parents, other members of the community, and police. If someone suspects a young man or woman of being radicalized, they can report it. The police, with the help of an imam, reach out to the at-risk man or woman, and offer help. About 250 people are directly involved in the program, more than half of whom are “scouts” or monitors, looking for signs a young man or woman is becoming radicalized.

“The key is outreach,” Aarslev said. “And the next key, you might say, is to sit down and listen to them and try to understand what situation they are in.”

The program’s advocates admit that the approach doesn’t work every time.

In March, two more people, a man and a woman from Aarhus, are believed to have left for Syria.

"We have long expected that it would happen sooner or later. We are pleased just that travel activity decreased," said Aarslev.

Still, of the 34 people from Aarhus known to have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2013, five are believed to have been killed and 16 have returned to Denmark.

All 16 were asked to turn themselves in for an interview. Each one complied.

“All of them come,” Arslev said. Some have even expressed disillusionment with the groups fighting in Syria.

Only one has voiced an interest in returning to the battlefield, he said.