Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet Sydney Morning Herald Oct. 22, 2014
AARHUS, Denmark: The rush of morning shoppers parted to make way for Talha, a lanky 21-year-old in desert camouflage and a long, religious beard. He strode through the local mall with a fighter's gait picked up on the battlefields of Syria. Streams of young Muslim men greeted him like a returning king. al-salam alaykum. (peace be upon you).
In other countries, Talha - one of hundreds of young jihadists from the West who has fought in Syria and Iraq - might be barred from return or thrown in jail. But in Denmark, a country that has spawned more foreign fighters per capita than almost anywhere else, not one returned fighter has been locked up. Instead, officials here are providing free psychological counselling while finding returnees jobs and spots in schools and universities. Officials credit a new effort to reach out to a radical mosque with staunching the flow of recruits.
Aarhus' answer has left the likes of Talha wandering freely on the streets. The son of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, he fought with an Islamist brigade in Syria for nine months before returning home last October. He still dreams of one day living in a Middle Eastern caliphate. He rejects the Islamic State's beheading of foreign hostages but defends their summary executions of Iraqi and Syrian soldiers. "I know how some people think. They are afraid of us, the ones coming back," says Talha, a name he adopted to protect his identity because he never told his father he went to fight. "Look, we are really not dangerous."
Yet critics call this city's soft-handed approach just that - dangerous. And the effort here is fast becoming a pawn in the much larger debate raging across Europe over Islam and the nature of extremism. More and louder voices here are clamouring for new laws that could not only charge returnees with treason but also set curbs on immigration from Muslim countries.
Aarhus is treating its returning religious fighters like wayward youths rather than terrorism suspects because that's the way most of them started out. The majority were young men like Talha, between 16 and 28, including several former criminals and gang members who had recently found what they began to call "true Islam". Most of them came from law-abiding Muslim homes and, quite often, were the children of divorced parents.
On the day he left for Syria, in October 2012, he told his divorced parents that he and a friend were going to Turkey on vacation. Instead, his friend's cousin had arranged their passage across the border to Syria. He worked in a refugee camp for a few weeks before getting attached to an independent battalion associated with the Islamist militia Ahrar al-Sham, a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda. During the months when he manned heavy artillery batteries near Aleppo, he said, his outfit also maintained harmonious ties with the Islamic State.
Danish authorities say the vast majority of the 30 or so Aarhus residents who went to Syria were somehow linked to one of the most polarising houses of worship in Europe - the Grimhojvej mosque. Talha began to worship there four years ago, two years before he left for Syria. But Talha wants to make one thing clear. He, like the mosque leadership, denies that Grimhojvej recruited him and other fighters.
Nevertheless, in January, Aarhus officials gave the mosque an ultimatum. It could either open itself up to a new dialogue with the community or face a public condemnation and, quite likely, stepped-up legal pressure. The mosque chose to cooperate. Since January, police and city officials have engaged in a number of unprecedented sessions hosted by the mosque. In the presence of mosque leaders, police and city officials met with returned fighters like Talha to assess their risk levels. They also met with members of the mosque's youth group to dissuade other young Muslims from traveling to the Middle East. The mosque still openly backs a caliphate in the Middle East, refuses to offer a blanket denunciation of the Islamic State and warns that Denmark's recent decision to join the US-led coalition in air strikes against the militant group may only fan the fires of terrorism.
Police officials say the statistics prove their approach is working. "In 2013, we had 30 young people go to Syria," said Jorgen Ilum, Aarhus's police commissioner. "This year, to my knowledge, we have had only one. We believe that the main reason is our contact and dialogue with the Muslim community." [Abridged]