Can ISIS fighters returning to Western nations be treated like any other war veterans—allowed to live freely, offered but not mandated to attend counseling, even put on the public dole? At least one country seems to think so: Denmark. According to a profile in The Washington Post:
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, the port city of Aarhus is taking a novel approach by rolling out a welcome mat.In Denmark, not one returned fighter has been locked up. Instead, taking the view that discrimination at home is as criminal as Islamic State recruiting, officials here are providing free psychological counseling while finding returnees jobs and spots in schools and universities. Officials credit a new effort to reach out to a radical mosque with stanching the flow of recruits.
To call these efforts misguided seems an understatement. ISIS and other radical jihadist groups hold a universalist Islamic theology that they are willing to enforce with violence, and they have been clear that the West is on their target list. Though not every returning jihadist might bear malice against their home state, a refusal to take enemies who denounce your way of life, have sworn to kill you, and have actually killed people at their word seems insane.The contradictions in Denmark’s approach become more explicit, in spite of the locals’ seemingly willful blindness, as the Post’s authors report on the radical mosque that is home to many of Aarhus’ veteran jihadis. Aarhus’ city government boasts of successful efforts at dialogue with the institution, but despite having “nuanced its public positions” by “rejecting […] the Islamic State’s beheadings of foreign hostages”, 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 U.S.-led coalition in airstrikes against the militant group may only fan the fires of homegrown terrorism.
Despite what the idealists will tell you, not all conflicts are a result of failures to communicate. There are deep and fundamental disagreements at work between the vision of these radicals and Danish values. But the real issue is that the “veterans” profiled in this piece have proven they are willing to use violence to resolve such disagreements. In that context, the veiled threat at the end does not bode well for the future.This is not to say that the challenge of dealing with returning jihadis is one that lends itself to easy answers. Another story out yesterday, this one in the Wall Street Journal, details the problems France has had dealing with its own citizens returning from Syria and Iraq. The problems range from the comically inept (three wanted jihadis trying to surrender at a local police station after the French security services totally lost track of them) to the serious: French law is apparently not set up to counter the threat of returning jihadists and lone wolf terrorists.France’s Parliament is trying to fix that. Naturally, this cannot be accomplished without some anti-American posturing—”We are not going to create our own Guantanamo Bay,” the author of the new anti-terror bill proclaimed. But fundamentally, France’s issues are of a different sort than those the U.S. faced regarding Guantanamo. France, and Europe writ large, is wrestling with large numbers of homegrown radicals who have gained experience abroad. For all Western nations, however, learning how to deal with that threat without veering into either repressive measures or Danish-style Pollyanna-ism will be one of the major security challenges of the coming months and years.