The Syrian conflict has become internationalized, as scores of young Europeans flock from the continent to join the ranks of extremist groups like the Islamic State. Youth radicalization is thus a global, rather than merely local concern.
Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at Carnegie, joined Lars Erslev Andersen and Tobias Gemmerlie, both senior researchers at the Danish Institute for International Studies, Jørgen Ilum, police commissioner of the East Jutland police district, and Natascha Jensen, head of the Department of Social Services at the Municipality of Aarhus, to discuss deradicalization efforts. Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, moderated the discussion.
- Types of Radicalization: Abou Zeid suggested that there are two phases to radicalization. First, there is an initial phase of political radicalization, followed by a latter phase of religious radicalization. As international organizations cut their aid levels and Jabhat al Nusra and their ilk emerged as the main providers of aid and support to refugees, radicalization increased, noted Abou Zeid. Islamist movements managed to earn the sympathy and support of refugees, even formerly secular activists. This culminated in the mobilization of several hundred refugees by the Islamic State to fight against the Lebanese Army in Arsal, explained Abou Zeid.
- Displacement: Abou Zeid explained that this led Lebanese who did not distinguish between refugees and militants to resent the presence of all Syrians in Lebanon. This, in turn, led to a wave of internal displacement and contributed to the radicalization of the Sunni communities into which the refugees now moved. It was also noted that radicalization among refugees was spurred by the desire of certain individuals to regain their pre-crisis social status.
Deradicalization: Home and Abroad
- Resident Sympathizers: Andersen warned that the greatest security threat to European communities comes from resident sympathizers with opposition groups rather than returning militants, a direct contrast with the popular view. Most of the perpetrators of the Copenhagen and Paris attacks were “home-grown terrorists,” who did not have direct contact with those in conflict zones (although one of the Paris attackers received training in Yemen).
- Danish Deradicalization: Anderson outlined the Danish tri-level model of deradicalization. The primary level involves outreach programs and dialogue promotion to make communication easier, the secondary level uses mentors and groups to reach moderate-risk individuals, while the tertiary level involves the extraction and re-integration of high-risk individuals and militants in conflict zones.
- Creating Trust: Such a model would have a hard time in the Middle East, participants agreed. Ilum pointed out one example of why this would be so difficult. In Denmark, 80-90 percent of the population would say that they trust the police, he said. This is not the case in Lebanon.
New Challenges, New Approaches
- Prevention: Ilum stated that Denmark is focused both on fighting crime and preventing it. They use a three pronged strategy of early intervention, a multi-agency approach, and collaboration with city authorities. Close cooperation with frontline teachers and police officers is a critical feature of the approach, explained Ilum.
- Factors: Jensen argued that poor living conditions, as well as feelings of exclusion and isolation, are leading factors contributing to an increased risk of radicalization among the youth. Thus ‘Infohouses’ staffed with policemen and social workers were set up to assess each concern and decide on a course of action.
- Role of Family: She went on to explore the role of parents in countering radicalization and the need to empower and keep them in contact with the authorities. Parents now contact the police rather than the other way round, she added. Those who return from Syria undergo an assessment of their mental condition and intentions. Those who wish to re-integrate are assisted in doing so to prevent further radicalization.
Conclusions and Concerns
- Counterradicalization: Gemmerlie summarized the key concepts of the Danish “carrot” model of counterradicalization. These include maintaining a healthy dialogue in mosques and the municipality and focusing on targeting criminal actions rather than radical views. He emphasized the incompatibility between democratic principles and fundamentalist ideology is.
- Measuring Success: Gemmerlie added that, due to the challenge of constructing a credible counterfactual, it is difficult to attribute with certainty the successes in Denmark to the counterradicalization programs. He added that the large scale expansion of surveillance to identify signs of radicalization carries with it potentially harmful societal effects.