AARHUS, Denmark

Mohamoud Abdullahi did everything he could to keep his daughter from joining the fight in Syria.

He told her again and again about the civil war in his native Somalia and the toll it took on survivors like him.

“Unless you are trained, you can’t go to a war zone,” he warned.

But in the final days of 2013, the 22-year-old college student called to say she was on her way to reunite with her husband, who had recently traveled to the Middle East. She was one of 30 young people from Denmark’s second-largest city to leave for Syria that year.

The wave of departures put the nation in the forefront of global efforts to stop the flow of fighters joining Islamist extremists. Now it is testing the idea that society can blunt the lure of extremism with a distinct brand of Scandinavian Nice — and officials in Minneapolis are watching closely.

Reneé Jones Schneider
VideoVideo (06:32): Denmark's unique approach to deradicalization relies on inclusion and religious freedom.
Video (06:32): Denmark's unique approach to deradicalization relies on inclusion and religious freedom.

Denmark counsels budding radicals, finds jobs for returning foreign fighters, coaches family members and reaches out to the radical Aarhus mosque where Abdullahi’s daughter once worshiped. Authorities here say this soft approach works: The exodus of young people has slowed to a trickle.

“The Aarhus model is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but a combination of dialogue and a firm hand,” said Jacob Bundsgaard, mayor of Aarhus.

Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger traveled here before rolling out a pilot project in the Twin Cities to counter radical recruitment. Meanwhile, supporters of nine Minneapolis men convicted in a plot to join militants in Syria champion Denmark’s less punitive approach.

But critics of the program are becoming more vocal. They cite the lack of hard evidence that the effort is working and challenge the practice of helping those returning from Middle Eastern battlefields.

“You should not reward people who have been a part of a terrorist organization,” said Naser Khader, a member of Parliament from Aarhus. “You should prosecute them.”

Even some parents who welcome second chances for young people, including Abdullahi, feel the country could do more to crack down on those in Denmark who encourage them to fight abroad.

What’s unfolding here in Denmark poses larger questions in the global search for solutions to radical recruitment: Should local communities or government take the lead? And should authorities punish young men and women swept up in jihadist movements — or try to coax them into breaking away?

Little pushback in Denmark

Abdullahi’s younger daughter was a role model in the Aarhus Somali community: a warm presence who juggled college and a job at a medical clinic. He just wished he didn’t have to push her to pray regularly and fast during Ramadan.

So Abdullahi, a chemistry lab technician, was pleased to see her becoming more devout after marrying an Australian of Somali descent whom she met online. When she spoke of a desire to help children caught in the Syrian conflict, Abdullahi urged her to look into volunteering with the Danish Red Cross. When her husband left to join the Al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, she seemed to agree with her father that following him would be a grave mistake.

“I never expected her to disobey all my efforts to convince her,” Abdullahi said.

In the 2000s, Aarhus — a vibrant college town slated to be next year’s European cultural capital — undercut an active neo-Nazi group by engaging with the young men and enlisting their families as key allies. Then came the 2005 London bombings and the Danish newspaper cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed, which made the country a target for jihadist groups.

In recent years, the focus in Aarhus and across Denmark has been on stemming a flow of young people to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Back in 2013, Denmark was second only to Belgium in per capita departures among Western European countries. More than 125 people have traveled to Syria, and more than 60 of them have returned, according to police data.

The 2015 attack by an ISIL-inspired gunman who killed two people in Copenhagen gave the work new urgency. But it didn’t change Denmark’s gentle approach.

The key is early intervention with young people who show interest in extremist ideology, Danish officials say. They rely on a long-standing partnership between schools, municipal social workers and a preventive arm of local police departments.

Educators and social workers are trained to recognize the signs that a young adult might have tuned in to radical propaganda: drastic changes in dress, social circle and behavior. They can call 24-hour hot lines to report concerns. Police help screen out false alarms: In Copenhagen, only about 40 out of 160 reports in 2014 and 2015 called for a follow-up.

Police also take the lead in approaching young people and their families.

Some front-line youth workers have voiced concerns that monitoring might damage their relationships with young people. Others worry the spotlight on deradicalization programs can fuel prejudice against Muslim immigrants.

But overall, these programs have drawn little community opposition and inspired little of the debate rippling through the United States about putting young people on law enforcement’s radar before they commit a crime.

In Aarhus, police superintendent Allan Aarslev says it helps to have a team of police who work on prevention, separate from department investigators.

“This is not a surveillance program,” he said. “If we have a concern about somebody, they know about it right away.”

Mentors intervene

In 2014, a family called the Aarhus hot line after their teenage son vowed to travel to Syria. The city arranged for a mentor. In a hushed Aarhus campus library cafe, the two debated the meaning of jihad.

Joining the fight in Syria was “the only way to be a true Muslim,” the high school student at first told the mentor, who asked not to be identified.

The man, who has a graduate degree in religious studies, slowly nudged the student to imagine an alternative: going to college, getting married, serving as a role model to other young Muslims. They worked on homework and school papers. The mentor even tried to mediate a rift between the teen and his parents.

The young man, who graduated this year, decided against going to Syria.

Not all of his interventions succeed, the mentor acknowledged. After a month of confrontational meetings, one young man told him not to call again. A recent returnee from Syria cringed at loud noises but refused to talk about his experience. After getting help to pass his end-of-high-school exams, he quit the program.

In Copenhagen, Muhammad Hee, the project manager of that city’s mentoring program, asks to meet disaffected young people for coffee at the family home. He says upfront that he is concerned the young person is hanging out with a peer group that has supported members bound for Syria.

“We’re not trying to interfere with your right to be religious,” he says. “But other youngsters before you have traveled, and their parents didn’t get a chance to bury them.”

About a third of young people accept the offer of support; eight in 10 families agree to meet with a parent coach, said Hee.

The programs are voluntary — though officials in Copenhagen recently made the controversial decision to withhold Denmark’s generous welfare benefits from parents who refuse to cooperate with their minor child’s intervention. If adults refuse to participate, the programs turn over information to authorities for monitoring them.

Fighters returning from Syria also are offered mentoring. They can get psychological counseling and help with finding a job or an apartment — even as other European countries have detained them.

Officials say Danish law sets a high bar for authorities to prove travelers fought for a terrorist group.

“We make it very clear that if we learn that they have committed crimes in Syria, we will prosecute,” said Mayor Bundsgaard. “But we also tell them we want them to be part of society again.”

Overall, Aarhus officials have received 375 referrals through the hot line since 2010. Twenty-three people joined the mentorship program. Few opt out.

Authorities here point to the case of a young Somali Dane named Mohammed as evidence that softening their approach can pay off.

Mohammed, who asked to be identified only by his first name, lost his temper in a high school religion class in 2011. He shouted at classmates who made disparaging remarks about Islam.

He was shocked to be summoned to the police station later that week. Police searched his home and computer. Before long, the investigation was dropped, but by then Mohammed, distraught and humiliated, had skipped the end-of-year exams he needed to graduate.

That summer, an acquaintance invited Mohammed to a gathering at an apartment in Gellerupparken, a largely immigrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Aarhus, and Denmark’s lowest-income postal code. There, young men aired grievances about Danish society and watched the YouTube sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Al-Qaida cleric killed in a U.S. drone strike that year.

“I felt at home,” he told the Star Tribune. “These guys took me seriously.”

After he returned to school to repeat his senior year, Mohammed heard from police again. A different officer called to apologize and to invite him to have coffee at the station. At the meeting, the officer suggested pairing Mohammed with a mentor, a young Muslim attorney. Mohammed agreed to meet him just so he could confront “the snitch.”

But Mohammed got caught up in a debate about Islam with his new mentor, returning to their meetings with fresh arguments supplied by his friends. Each time, Mohammed searched the man for a hidden camera or a microphone. Slowly, the mentor’s patience, reasoned worldview and willingness to help with schoolwork won Mohammed over.

“I told these confused young people I was with that the world is not black and white,” Mohammed said. “It has colors.”

Mohammed, who completed a two-year college program for financial comptrollers, recently became a mentor in the program. Meanwhile, two of his former friends have died in Syria, he says. “That could have been me.”

Radical outreach

With his daughter in Aleppo, Syria, Abdullahi braced for the worst. Weeks after she left, it came. He got word from a family member that the young couple had died in shelling by rival Syrian insurgents.

Unable to get official confirmation, Abdullahi clings to faint hope: Perhaps his daughter was disfigured in the attack and doesn’t want her family to see her that way.

“For me and her mother, she is still alive,” he said.

Abdullahi joined a support network in Aarhus. There, parents who feared their sons and daughters might leave received coaching in how to rebuild relationships. They pressed authorities for more answers. It was then that Abdullahi found out his daughter had been going to a mosque called Grimhojvej, housed in a former ice cream factory on the edge of town.

Authorities in Aarhus believe at least 22 of the 30 people from the city who traveled to Syria in 2013 attended the mosque or a youth group affiliated with it. The mosque’s leaders had voiced support for ISIL’s goal of establishing an Islamist state in the Middle East.

In early 2014, police superintendent Aarslev started meeting monthly with the mosque’s board chairman, Oussama el-Saadi. El-Saadi denies the mosque encouraged young people to travel. Still, it agreed to host conversations between youth members and authorities.

Sometimes, in the low-ceilinged prayer space amid foosball and Ping-Pong tables, mosque leaders field questions about going to Syria. In an interview with the Star Tribune, El-Saadi stopped short of denouncing ISIL.

But, he said, “We say it’s a very dangerous zone, and it’s hard to travel there.”

In the town of Aalborg, Nuuradiin Hussein coordinates the intervention program. He had been working closely with leaders at the local Somali mosque when he found out that the Grimhojvej youth club members were coming to speak there. At his request, the Aalborg imam rescinded the invitation.

In Denmark, prevention is part of a broader attempt to better integrate immigrant communities. Copenhagen has focused on fighting discrimination, including at nightclubs and workplaces.

Aarhus is pouring more than $180 million into an overhaul of Gellerupparken, where Mohammed went to watch Awlaki’s sermons. New roads, a state-of-the-art athletic complex and municipal worker offices are meant to make the satellite dish-speckled apartment buildings less of an “island in the city.”

Osman Farah, a leader of the Aarhus Somali community association, says a couple of young men have complained that overtures by the police have made them feel persecuted. But overall, he says, the city efforts have been well received.

“People are satisfied with this soft approach,” he said. “We are talking about young people who have committed a mistake, and a second chance is good.”

More skepticism

Denmark’s approach has skeptics at home and abroad. Jytte Klausen, an Aarhus native and Brandeis University professor who studies extremist groups, points out there’s little data to support the success stories. She is skeptical that mentoring and academic support can help deradicalize young people who haven’t made a conscious decision to seek help. And she says if Danish law makes it too difficult to prosecute returning fighters, the law needs to change.

“It’s evidence of arrogance and hypocrisy to treat your citizens leniently if they participate in crimes against the citizens of Syria and Iraq,” said Klausen. “Denmark is guilty of undervaluing Muslim lives.”

Officials in Aarhus, which has not submitted to a formal evaluation of its program since 2011, say the proof is in the departure numbers.

After the peak of 30 in 2013, the number of known Syria travelers dipped to one in 2014, three in 2015 and none so far this year.

They say a successful intervention is hard to define. Success can mean simply “stealing time away” from the radical peer groups that can come to dominate young people’s lives: being in school or employed, spending more time with family, even getting married. By this definition, officials balk at quantifying successful interventions. In 2014, Aarhus authorities thought they had won over one young man. A year later, he was in Syria.

Critics like Khader, the member of Parliament, say other factors have shaped the departure numbers: ISIL has suffered setbacks on the battlefield; parents might be more vigilant. He claims he knows of several young people who traveled in 2014. Meanwhile, no rehabilitated foreign fighter has come forward to discourage peers from traveling.

Khader believes that even under current Danish law, officials can do more to investigate returnees, and that the current approach sends the wrong message: “Young people say, ‘Do I have to travel to Syria to get help finding a job?’ ”

Meanwhile, some community groups have sprung up to supplement the government’s work. On his 2014 trip to Denmark, Luger met with a group of Somali mothers in Odense who do their own interventions with young people in close contact with police. He described it as a highlight of his visit.

Last year, Mohammed Hassan and other Gellerupparken residents launched a group to handle neighborhood “red alerts,” after a resident’s two high school-age sons left for Syria. Hassan, a father of two young children, says family members are more comfortable approaching neighbors than calling an impersonal hot line. In some immigrant communities, mistrust of the police runs deep.

Abdullahi, the Somali father, says he supports the city’s soft approach to young recruits, but wants to see a harder line with those recruiting. Someone in Aarhus — perhaps someone at the Grimhojvej mosque — helped his daughter leave the country, but no one was held accountable.

Since last year, as a refugee crisis fueled the rise of conservative parties across Europe, the climate in Denmark has shifted. New legislation allows authorities to confiscate the passports of people they believe might be headed to fight in Syria. Politicians in Parliament are discussing proposals to muzzle radical imams.

Aarhus halted plans for a new mosque after the airing of a TV report that captured local imams advising an undercover journalist not to report an abusive husband to the police.

A recent Danish Institute for International Studies report says the get-tough push might complicate current efforts, as people grow nervous about engaging with authorities. The divisive debate highlights the need to define the program’s goals better and evaluate its outcomes, the report concludes.

But officials say they are not second-guessing their prevention work.

“The experts say punishment doesn’t work,” said Mai-Britt Iversen, an Aalborg city council member. “If you put them in prison, when they come out they are warriors.”

In coping with his daughter’s disappearance, Abdullahi has leaned heavily on his faith. At the same time, he pulled his two younger sons from Qur’an school. They take classes online now, always in their father’s presence.

“We have to be more watchful with our children,” he said. “The whole society needs to be more vigilant.”