Denmark’s ongoing war with ISIS

by Marina Starodubtseva and Martin Choi

Denmark fights to de-radicalize its young people amidst the growing threat of ISIS.

The number of individuals in Denmark who have left to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is declining, say experts.

Now Denmark has a special program to prevent young people from going to fight for ISIS, which plays a significant role in de-radicalising extremists.

However, this doesn’t mean that the number of people in the West capable of planning and executing terrorist attacks will decrease, and experts note that the overall number of foreign fighters will continue to rise.

How does the system of de-radicalization in Copenhagen work, and how will terrorists adapt to this new reality?


What actually happens in the Copenhagen system of de-radicalisation

“If you want to be a true muslim, you should fight for the Islamic State, and you will reach Paradise,” said a father to his oldest son, encouraging him to go down to Syria to fight for his religion to be a true muslim.

This family had first been redirected to a social care worker after the youngest daughter had been caught shoplifting. The comments from the older brother raised alarms, and a concern was sent to VINK, an organisation specialising in preventing radicalisation. The concern was qualified and a specialist on radicalisation from VINK was sent to speak to this family.

Another specialist, who knew about the muslim religion and terrorist organisations, was sent in, effectively altering the family’s home-brewed version of what it meant to be a true muslim.

The family was de-radicalised completely, the father received help to find a job and the oldest son was supported into education.

Nevertheless, this is only one case example of a successfull attempt of de-radicalisation.

ISIS regularly releases videos of public beheadings and executions. And this only makes it seem more attractive to young and frustrated Muslims.

According to ICSR’s latest estimate, the number of foreigners that have joined Sunni militant organisations exceeds 20,000. A fifth were residents or nationals of Western European countries. CTA assesses that a minimum of 135 Danes have left the country since the summer of 2012 to fight in Syria and Iraq, most of them young Sunni males and 10% of them female. Relative to population size, this is more than any other western European country except Belgium.


Whereas in the past most of the radicalised people tended to travel to Syria, this situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Militant Islamist propaganda continues to influence individuals in Denmark, urging them to travel to the conflict zone.

However, according to the CTA (Center for Terrorist Analysis) fewer individuals have left Denmark than earlier, while the number of returnees from Syria and Iraq with combat experience has increased. CTA assesses that just below half of the travellers are currently in Denmark.


Transformation of terrorist attacks

The attacks are often carried out by individuals on their own or by a small group. They may have a stronger effect if the attackers have gained capacity, for example through a criminal circle.

The attacks on the cultural centre Krudttønden and the synagogue in Copenhagen on 14 and 15 February 2015, respectively, are examples of these types of attacks.

The most recent terrorist attack was in Christiania, a self-governing commune in the capital with a long history of openly selling cannabis. The 25-year-old man who shot three people in Chrisiania last week had ties to Millatu Ibrahim (Islamist group) and sympathies for IS, the police said in a statement.


Preventing radicalisation among young people

According to Lennart Holst, consultant for the crime prevention organization SSP (Social Welfare, Students, Policing Prevention), young people are the most active in any kind of localized uprising.

“If you look into the Danish Resistance during WWII and go into the statistics, those who were an active part in the resistance, were very young. Most of them were under 20, and now we have the same situation.”

A new generation of recruits are actively being developed in the Islamic State, young individuals with religious concepts from birth. They are better and purer than the adult fighters, according to the first study by Quillam, a London counter-extremism think tank, on the exploitation and abuse of children as a means of securing the group’s future.

In Copenhagen, the municipality has received 109 inquiries concerning the signs of radicalization among young people since January 2014, while Aarhus has received 83 inquiries this year. These inquiries predominantly concern young people who may be attracted by extreme ideological or religious communities.

As the number of radicalised people is on the increase, Denmark has put more resources into testing programs to prevent young men and women from joining extremist groups. The city of Copenhagen set up a hotline in 2009 for people to call if they suspect someone they know is starting to embrace radical Islam.

“In Scandinavia, Denmark is top of the class for multi-agency interventions to stop extremism,” says Magnus Ranstorp, the Swedish head of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network.

The local unit for prevention of radicalization, VINK, has mentors trained in going into direct dialogue with young individuals, as well as parent coaching which goes into dialogue with their parents.

“Generally speaking most of them are socially vulnerable individuals with low schooling, unemployment, or no connection with normal society in the sense that they have no identity as an educated person or a person with a job or other social networks,” says Lennart Holst. “Those are the individuals that we predominantly see are radicalized and at risk of being radicalized”.


Fighting against propaganda

But the main threat for Denmark is the number of returning militant Islamists which will rise over the next few years, predict experts of PET (Danish Security and Intelligence Service).

With the increase in the returning militant Islamists in the West capable of planning and executing terrorist attacks, ISIS supporters in Denmark and the Western world will be inspired and given support, especially those who want to launch terrorist attacks but lack experience from combat zones.

Apart from national prevention programs, the international society also thrives to find a way to tackle ISIS’ propaganda. Google has been working over the past year to develop a new program that utilises both its search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to dissuade aspiring ISIS recruits from joining the organisation.

As a result of the success of ISIS’ propaganda, the US State Department has created the Twitter account “Think again, turn away”, featuring photos of the crimes and victims of ISIS. ISIS fighters hacked this account and sent the threats “American soldiers, we are coming, look back”.

Judging by the effectiveness of ISIS in recruiting new members, the international society will need to reconsider their approach to information policy and study the techniques from jihadists.