Jamal* is featured in this week’s Dateline story ‘Hug a Jihadi’, which looks at a program in Denmark, trying to turn people away from terrorism using empathy rather than punishment.
In his own words, Jamal tells our reporter Evan Williams how he began to become radicalised and what changed his mind.
This has been edited for length and clarity.
“I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia 1989 and one year after that the civil war broke out in Mogadishu and we had to flee. We fled to Kenya and from there on we came to Ethiopia and we were given asylum there. My father got first his asylum first in Denmark and we were reunited with him in 1996.
Society’s main view on immigrants [in Denmark] was quite different at the time – it was like 'welcome, welcome'. I would say generally I was welcomed.
When we moved there we were the only black family, my siblings were the first black people in the class. I felt my skin colour it was a good thing not a bad thing and I didn't feel segregated from anyone when I was hanging around with my Danish friends, because they had my back.
Q: When did that change?
It actually changed when I began having problems at college. I would say the rhetoric in the society got rougher.
[One day] a teacher said, ‘today we are discussing Islam’, and I was like, ‘OK I can do this let's discuss’. Some of them were very chuffed to debate it, they were like ‘Islam is stoning people’ and ‘Islam slaughtering people, that's a barbaric religion’. I was like, ‘this is blasphemy’.
It was only me who was fighting for the religion I felt at that time and I said to one of the girls that was debating with me; ‘you deserve to be stoned when you talk like that’. It was quite a tough back and forth, we said some stuff to each other and the teacher interrupted and said, 'stop! please!' I don't know if she was crying or she was pissed off, but she screamed; 'stop! This not a good debate and the class is dismissed. You can go home’.
I felt like I was targeted and I didn't know how to debate properly. I was a young kid.
The teacher listened to the concerns and was quite shocked and said, ‘yeah I was there and I could feel the tensions’, or something like that, and so she took the concern to the principal. The principal called the police. They went to my parents’ house, and not in uniform at all, just knocked on the door and said ‘where is your son?’
Early in the morning I went to the police station. I was like, ‘I want to know what this is about’, and he said to me that some of the classmates feel like that you have become extremist and that you would like to bomb the school. From there I was shocked because I wasn't a terrorist, it was a debate.
[The police said], ‘can you sign this paper that allows me to search your house? If you don't we can keep you here for 24 hours. We will get the warrant anyway’.
I was very angry because seeing them throwing clothes everywhere and searching in the house – it was very humiliating and I don't hope for any person in the world to experience that.
It was very humiliating and I could see my family, their faces, they were shocked.
I was angry and in my mind I was like; 'if they want a terrorist, I will give them a terrorist. Because I felt like they were treating me as a terrorist when I wasn’t one’.”
Jamal’s mother died not long after, and Jamal started spending time with a group of men – who each felt discriminated against for being Muslim – he considered leaving for Pakistan. Three of Jamal’s friends from the group ended up going to Syria to fight for I.S. – he says two died and one is still there. During this period, Jamal received a phone call.
“The police were calling me and I was like, ‘what the hell these guys want?’ He said my name is Thomas* and I wanted to talk to you about your case, it was badly handled and I would like to say sorry. I was like, ‘do you say sorry now? You ruined my life, you took everything from me I don't want to talk to you’ and he said, ‘please come in and grab a coffee with me and let’s talk’.
I was like, ‘this guy will never leave me alone, he was so insistent I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go to this meeting, I want to finish it and then they have to leave me alone’. I went to that meeting and he was very nice to me he said ‘welcome’, and said to me he was very sorry that the case was very badly handled.
He said, ‘the principal wasn't attacking me he was asking for advice and we couldn't give him the advice – we handled the case like it was a terrorist case and that was terrible for you and we are very sorry’. I was like, ‘it's good that you admit your mistake but it's too late now for me, I'm leaving this country and I'm moving to Pakistan when I finish college’.
He said to me, ‘can you meet a mentor who is also a Muslim and maybe you two can talk to each other and maybe find solutions to your problems?’
I was like, ‘who is this traitor? Who is this Muslim who will backstab his brothers and sell us out to the police?’
So I said yes to the meeting just to put a face to that person.
The next week we met at the police station and it was a young Turkish guy and I remember I said to him ‘Salaam-Alaikum’ (‘Peace be unto you’), and he said to me ‘Alaikum-Salaam’ and I was like, ‘why are you working with them?’ and he said, ‘I don't work with them, I am a mentor. I'm not here to arrest you or anything’.
In the beginning I was like, ‘they're going to give me a spy, I'll show him what I do with spies’, and all that. But he was very patient, he didn't give up.
I remember searching for hidden microphones and hidden cameras and he was like, ‘take your time, I'm not a snitch’.
He was a lawyer. He had a family, he had a house, he was calm in his way of thinking and talking and I was like, ‘this guy has found some peace that I haven’t found yet. Let me figure out what it is’.
He took me to a café – I had never been in a café like that before. I looked around and I was like, ‘do you know we’re the only two different colours in here? The rest have white skin.’
He was like ‘yeah, relax’. He ordered some waffles and I ordered a Fanta and we discussed. But I definitely felt uncomfortable.
Sometimes it's nice to find yourself in an awkward situation and figure out some solutions – and I felt like in the coffee shop. I was a new person who could have this identity in that place, so we could actually build something up.
He said that in Denmark we have freedom of religion, you're not oppressed in that way that you can't be a Muslim. It was important for me to hear because in my mind at the time, I was like, ‘I can't be a Muslim here’.
But he said to me, ‘you have a constitutional right to have the religion you want, of course there are some politicians who say a lot of crap, but legally they can't do nothing about it, as long as you obey the law and do your stuff; work, school whatever you want, just don't get in their mindset of hostile thinking’. What he mentioned specifically was that as a Muslim person in the West, you can be a good person to your fellow citizens because they are also your fellow citizens. They are part of this society – you have to treat them well even if they are not Muslim.
Q: If you hadn't met your mentor, if you hadn't been open to the program, do you think that there's a chance that you would have gone to Syria yourself?
Because it's more like if they don't want me, let me go to somebody who wants me. Let me be part of something that I can build on.
I felt like I was segregated, I was neglected, I was humiliated, so I was vulnerable. For a person who is vulnerable at that time, he will do anything.
I've met Europeans who returned and I asked them, ‘why did you leave?’ and they say ‘at that time, that was the best option I had. I didn't have an alternative’.
We need the kind of mentors that I got – it is a way that we can prevent further polarisation because normally with extremist thinking you go from talk to walk – in the end you are committing a crime, but it always starts with the idea, the talk.
*Names have been changed.