• Several years ago Jamal* says he was so angry with society he almost became a terrorist. (SBS Dateline)
Can extremists be rehabilitated? In Denmark, a controversial new program is trying to change the minds of radicalised young people, by supporting rather than outcasting them – but does it work?
Tuesday, August 8, 2017 - 21:30

Can you stop terrorism with empathy?

Under a program run by police in Denmark’s second largest city, Aarhus, a unique approach is being tested – offering assistance to radicalised youths and adults, rather than treating them as criminals.

The police running the program believe helping young extremists is the best way to keep the peace. Treating them harshly and with suspicion only isolates them further - making them more of a danger to society.

The program has been referred by some in the media as the ‘hug a terrorist’ model of deradicalisation. So far, it’s been remarkably effective.

In this week’s Dateline, reporter Evan Williams meets Jamal*, who several years ago says he was so angry with society he almost became a terrorist.

Jamal’s extremist views started developing after a high school debate on Islam. Jamal vehemently defended his religion against his classmates.  But the teacher interpreted something he said as a threat and the school referred Jamal to the police.

The ordeal resulted in Jamal getting suspended from school, and his home raided by police.  He told Dateline that he was made to feel like a criminal, when he hadn’t broken the law. As a result he surrounded himself with other young Muslims who shared his feelings of isolation. They watched radical sermons online and talked of jihad. Before long, they were planning to leave Denmark for Pakistan.

“In my mind I was like, ‘they treated me as a terrorist. If they want a terrorist, they will get a terrorist’,” he says.

But a phone call from one police officer changed everything for Jamal.

The officer apologised, telling Jamal his case was handled poorly, and asked if he would meet with a Muslim mentor.  At first Jamal was suspicious of the offer, but agreed to meet the mentor.

After several meetings and long conversations about the unique difficulties of being Muslim in Denmark, Jamal began reconsider his views. All it took was someone to reach out and offer empathy and understanding. In Jamal’s case, a punitive, disciplinary response from authorities to suspicions he was becoming radicalised, only further radicalised him. What turned him away from extremism was the offer of an open hand.

The genesis of the program known as the ‘Aarhus Model’ was a stream of calls to police from parents whose children had fled to Syria. Superintendent Allan Aarslev and his team considered how they would respond.

“We had a number of options,” he told Dateline. “We could prosecute them all if we can find evidence, however those we couldn't prosecute, what should we do about them?”

Their answer was to reach out to men like Jamal and give them another chance.

In Denmark, many Muslims whose parents were born overseas feel they are outcast from the rest of the population. Police in Aarhus recognised this may be the main source of discontent driving young Muslims to extremism.

Faisal Mohamed works with young Muslims in Aarhus – many who live in Gellerup, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city – and says the feeling of isolation they experience can be dangerous.

“A lot of immigrants face difficulties maybe with the language, or the lack of networks, the lack of connections with the broader society,” he says.

“Growing up as a young person you feel alone actually, and trapped between two worlds.”

These are the feelings that caused Jamal and his peers to develop extremist views.

Three of the young men Jamal was radicalised with ended up in Syria – two were killed while the other is still there. Jamal believes if it wasn’t for the Aarhus Model program he would be there as well.

According to Jamal’s mentor, patience is the key to de-radicalisation; “It takes a long time to be radicalised, but it also takes a long time to be deradicalised. It’s because they don’t feel like, ‘I’m a part of this society’.”

But this approach focused on nurturing reformed extremists has drawn criticism. Danish politician Naser Khader, a Muslim born in Syria, says it sends the wrong message. He believes the ‘hug a terrorist’ models tells young Muslims; “Go out and do something criminal, be jihadis, you will get a lot of privilege from the society. That’s wrong in my opinion.”

This view is more common in other western countries. The conventional government response to threats of extremism is generally harsh and firm – confiscate passports, issue jail terms and publicly attack anyone considered a threat.

But can a softer approach change the minds of potential radicals and stop them before they act on their thoughts?

*Name has been changed.

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


The Intern Diaries: Hug a Jihadi
Dateline reporter Evan Williams talks about his latest story, which looks at a unique police program trying to change the minds of extremists.
The radical program that turned one young man away from extremism
A new approach to deradicalisation in one Danish city is helping young men turn away from their extremist impulses by embracing them, writes Evan Williams.
How I almost became a terrorist
One Danish man’s story of embracing extremist ideas, before a controversial police program changed his mind on terrorism.
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?
Around 100 Australians are fighting with IS in the Middle East, and around 40 have already returned.
Integrating radical fighters who return home isn’t easy, but can be done
Thousands of foreign fighters are returning to their countries of origin, as Islamic State suffers military setbacks. The question for governments is; how should you manage these returnees?


Reporter: Evan Williams

Producer: Joel Tozer

Camera: Benjamin Emery

Associate Producer: Stephanie Stafford

Researchers: Kelly Hawke

Fixer: Uffe Mulvad

Editor: Micah McGown


Sometimes it's the small things that make the biggest difference. It was something small that stopped one of these men from turning into a terrorist.

MALE 1 (Translation): How are you?

MALE 2 (Translation): I’m well.

A simple chat between two guys.

MALE 1 (Translation): Nice view, right?

MALE 2 (Translation): Yes, lovely. This is Aarhus at its best.

They didn't know each over, they weren't friends. They were introduced to each over by the Danish police.

MALE 1 (Translation): Some of the things we’ve talked a lot about are… looking at our standard of living and the freedom we have here. It may be one of the best places to be a Muslim. We should be thankful.

Denmark has a reputation for being a tolerant liberal democracy and yet large numbers of young Muslim men have gone to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. Police here in the second city of Aarhus had decided to take a radically different approach to try to solve that problem.  Jamal, as we'll call him, had asked to be anonymous. He was in his final year of high school when the police came knocking. He felt they were treating him suspiciously.

REPORTER:  Hi, Jamal.

JAMAL:  Welcome.


Angry and isolated, he thought terrorism was the answer for him. The plan was to go to Pakistan then Syria. Just as he was about to leave, he got an unexpected phone call from the police.

JAMAL:  “Hello, I want to talk to you about your case, it was badly handled and I would like to say sorry.”

REPORTER: Why is it better to say sorry?

JAMAL:  Because I was angry I was frustrated but I didn't commit anything illegal …

REPORTER: At that point…

JAMAL:  At that point… Why say sorry, in my case was to make to not dehumanise me but to make me a human again. He said to me okay, okay 'Can you do me one last favour?' and I was like 'what now?' and he said to me can you meet a mentor who is also a Muslim …I was like 'Who is that traitor?... So I said yes to the meeting just to put a face on that person.
The police officer arranged for Jamal to meet with a Muslim mentor at the police station. For security reasons, the mentor has asked us to conceal his identity.

MENTOR: When he came in I could see …in his eyes, there was not so much happiness. It takes a long time to be radicalised but it also takes a long time to be de-radicalised. It’s because they don't feel like 'I'm a part of this society'.

JAMAL:  He was a lawyer, he was, he had a family he had a house…I was like this guy finds something peace that I didn't find yet. Let me figure out what it is.

REPORTER: So did that get you interested?

JAMAL:  Yeah, yeah.

REPORTER: His success?

JAMAL:  His success and how he managed to do it.

Slowly the two of them started to talk more and more. They debated religion, they chatted about what it felt like to be a Muslim and Danish. Then his mentor took him to a cafe in a wealthy part of town. It was a simple act that changed everything.

MENTOR:  For him it was first time like a black guy who sit there in the middle of town in Aarhus because it was not his hood.

JAMAL:  And I looked around and I was like “Do you know we are the only two who have different colours, the rest have white colour?” and he was like “Yeah, relax.”

MENTOR:  That moment it was very you know a very important moment because at that he also wants to talk about his future. Before that we always talk about his views and understanding of life, but also what happened before…

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY:  This is where we invite candidates for our exit programs to come to. It's more easy to talk to them...

REPORTER:  Looks like a normal street.

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY:  Just like a normal street.

REPORTER:  Doesn't look like the police station.


Syria is not place Superintendent Allan Aarslev knew much before 2012. He’d always worked in crime prevention, until the police station started getting a stream of phone calls from panicked parents whose kids had fled to Syria.

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY: They could describe their - their son's behaviour before they went and they more or less all could describe a son which had become more and more religious. These young men leave for the - for some kind of reason, because there is something in the normal daily life that doesn't work so well.

The police needed to work out what they would do when these young men wanted to come back.

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY: We had a number of options. We could prosecute them all if we could find evidence. However, those we couldn't prosecute, what should we do about them?

Allan and his colleagues came up with an idea that would shock most over countries around the world - reach out and say hello.

REPORTER: You called them directly?

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY: Yes, and invited them to come to the police station for a chat. So they could get some kind of help having a good life here in the city with education, a place to live and things like that. The majority of these young men, they have their family roots in the Middle East, so, of course, they have a - they have very strong feelings about what goes on in the Middle East. And that's where we have to help these young men saying that this is the place in Denmark where you were raised, this is a place where you live.

We hear repeated stories of these young men across the world, filled with anger and disillusionment. A recent report from Europol says one-third of those arrested for terrorism in Europe are under the age of 25. Nations like Australia with the average age of Jihadis is just 27, are struggling how best to deal with the problem.

TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER (2013-2015):  Our message to people who leave Australia to fight for terrorist armies in the Middle East is that we don't want you back.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINISTER 2017:  We face a growing threat from Islamist terrorism in Australia, in our region and around the world.

Many have taken a hard line approach. Confiscating passports and harsh jail terms for anyone considering extremism in the hope threatening them will deter attacks. Allan and his team questioned whether this was the right way for them. Their unusual program is sometimes called Hug A Jihadi.

KAROLINA DAM:  If I knew of the Aarhus model, I would have moved to Aarhus, definitely.


KAROLINA DAM:  Because Aarhus is the only place in Denmark that is miles before everyone else.

Karolina Dam lives in Denmark's capital Copenhagen.

REPORTER:  Just a small piece.

KAROLINA DAM:  You cut your own piece, it's much better. It's not hard to find out whose side you want to fight for - do you know what I mean?

REPORTER:  Sure, sure. Yeah.

Her eldest son, Lukas, was autistic. She spent years doing all she could for him but he had trouble fitting in. At 15 years old, he converted to Islam.

KAROLINA DAM:  He had an apprenticeship at a car shop. They were all Muslim and this one guy took him under his wing and they would pray together as well, they would do a whole lot of things, but I didn't really understand what was going on until he converted.

Three years later, he fled to Turkey and told Karolina he was doing aid work. She felt like she wasn't being told the truth.

KAROLINA DAM:  How the hell could he get on a plane by himself? I know he was 18, but he was struggling with things. And for him just all of a sudden to be able to cope with an airport, taken off to a whole different country all by himself, how did he set all this up in.

Seven months passed with few clues from Lukas. Until one Sunday evening, she heard a knock at the door.

KAROLINA DAM:  I pulled him inside, closed the door.

It was a Muslim friend of Lukas's she met before.

KAROLINA DAM:  I said, "Are you here to tell me that Lukas is dead?" I knew something really bad was going to happen.

He told her to go on Facebook and look up a page used by sympathisers of the self-declared Islamic State.

KAROLINA DAM:  So I had to open up all these posts to see if I could find the picture, and some of these posts were - were rolling with videos of beheadings or body parts or what. It was very, very horrendous. It was - it was - I was scared shit trying to find my son in a Facebook group page.

When she finally found a picture of Lukas, he was on a couch next to an AK47, behind him - the flag of the Islamic State.

KAROLINA DAM:  Well, this point they told me that he was in Syria, that he was with Daesh and he was martyred.

REPORTER:  He was dead.

KAROLINA DAM:  Yeah. I thought he was dead but I didn't think he was dead. It was - it's a - it's a strange place to be in and I still don't think he's dead. Sometimes I do believe he's dead but sometimes I just think he's going to come walking on the grass, you know, and say, "Hi mum." Because... We don't have a burial, we don't have a body and I think that's just something that we have to navigate with our emotions, our feelings, for the rest of our lives.

Back in Aarhus, I want to understand what drives some young Muslims towards extremism. We keep hearing how one of the main problems is many of the Muslims feel isolated or segregated against the rest of the Danish society and in this city, it's because most Muslims live in an area in the outskirts of Aarhus. We're going to a place known as the Muslim ghetto. A Somali man called Faisal Mohamed is going to show me what it's like here. He tells me about the challenges of feeling part of Danish society when your parents are from a different continent.

FAISAL MOHAMED:  So let's take a trip.


FAISAL MOHAMED:  To Gellerup. Well...

REPORTER:  What is it like for people here?

FAISAL MOHAMED:  Well, for people here, you know, lot of immigrants face difficulties maybe with the language or the lack of network, the lack of, you know, connections with the broader society. But these - these are the things that a lot of, you know, people in the area are actually working to improve.

He works with a lot of young men who have difficult experiences and says the isolation Jamal felt could be dangerous.

FAISAL MOHAMED:  When you come to Denmark very young with your parents and you move from a war-torn country, there's a lot of issues that comes - comes with it because, you know, growing up as a young person, you feel trapped between - you feel alone, actually, and trapped between two worlds.

JAMAL:  When we moved there we were the only black family I was, all my siblings were the first black people in the class.

Jamal could almost pinpoint the moment the radicalisation began. It was during a high school debate about Islam.

JAMAL: She said to me that Islam is barbaric, they stone people, it’s something that belongs to the Stone Age…and I said to one of the girls who was debating with me that ‘You deserve to be stoned when you talk like that and …’ yeah.

REPORTER:  What happened then? What did the teacher do?

JAMAL:  She took the concern to the principal, the Principle called the police.

Jamal never considered himself extreme, when the police turned up, it felt like they had already made up their minds about him.

JAMAL:  He said to me that there’s some of the classmates feel like that you are become extremist and you would like to bomb the school.  From then on I was shocked because I was not a terrorist. It was a debate.

But that debate got him expelled from school. Police then raided his family home. He was so traumatised he missed his end of year exams, and wasn't allowed to re-sit them again that year.

JAMAL:  It was very humiliating and my mother was shocked, my siblings were confused and I was very angry at the time. In my mind I was like they treated me as a terrorist. If they want a terrorist, they will get a terrorist. If that is what they want, I will give them what they want.

Jamal started spending more and more time with over young men from his mosque. Slowly they convinced each over their place was not here in Denmark.

JAMAL:  We discussed about what the hell are we doing here? Are we part of this society? What should we do? We discussed and one of the guys suggested to me that we should leave and I said to him “Where?” and he said “Pakistan.”

MENTOR:  When they make those groups it can be difficult if you don't have your own filter you think okay that's the right way to understand Islam. Then you go further, further, further and suddenly you're at the airport.

Three of the young men Jamal was radicalised with ended up in Syria. Two of them were killed. One of them is still there.

REPORTER:  And do you have any contact with him? Do you know what's happening?

JAMAL:  No, no.

REPORTER:  If you hadn't met your mentor, if you hadn't been open to the program, do you think there's a chance that you would have gone to Syria yourself if you'd been still with the group?

JAMAL:  Definitely, definitely. I felt like I was segregated, I was neglected, I was humiliated so I was vulnerable and for a person who is vulnerable at this time… he will do anything.

Allan and his team were also faced with the problem of foreign fighters returning home.

REPORTER: A lot of people have just said let's prosecute them and lock them all up.

No over country would give a Jihadi a second chance but Allan and his team did exactly that.

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY: These were men who had been to Syria and we don't know what they had been doing down there. That's the choice we have to make - of helping them or leaving them alone. That's where we, from my point of view, it would be much more safe for the local community here to help these young men to have a normal life after they have returned than to leave them alone.


SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY:  Because if we left them alone, we could surveil them for ages without being sure they would not commit any kind of crimes. If we did not integrate them into the local community again, they would be a safety hazard for us for a never-ending story.

Allan says since 2012, 36 local Muslims have left Aarhus for Syria. 19 have since returned to the community.

REPORTER:  And what's happened to those 19?

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY:  Well, they are - most of them are very well integrated and most of them are very happy to have had a second chance.

But not everyone believes in second chances. Danish politician Naser Khader, a Muslim born in Syria, believes Australia and the UK's tougher approach is the better way.

NASER KHADER, CONSERVATIVE PEOPLE’S PARTY:  What I have criticised when it comes to the Aarhus model is when you have been in Syria and come back, it's wrong in my opinion to reward who has been in Syria by giving them an apartment, jobs, education. We should prosecute them not reward them.

REPORTER: I see. You think it's a bad example?

NASER KHADER:   It is. You know, go out and do some criminal - be Jihadis, you will get a lot of privilege from this society. That's wrong in my opinion.

Whatever the politics, undoubtedly there are young Muslim men across the world feeling shut out. Some are fleeing to Syria. Others are causing death and destruction at home. How best to deal with this is still up for debate, but in this tiny Danish city, giving a second chance and starting with an apology appears to be working.

SUPERINTENDENT ALLAN AARSLEY: Works at the prevention side, we're quite confidence that the experience we have had, we are quite sure that this works. Nobody's going to the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq from this city and nobody has gone for two years.



For Jamal's mentor, this program is really about helping isolated young men become less vulnerable to messages of hate.

MENTOR: They are dangerous because they are dangerous human beings, so you cannot connect it to Islam. Of course maybe they use Islam to hide their own weakness but it has nothing to do with Islam’s values. You can see that, he is educated now, he has bachelor degree in economics. He don’t have a chance if you have a hard line.

REPORTER: Do you see yourself staying in Aarhus in the future?

JAMAL:  Yeah, yeah. I’m not saying I’m nationalist but I’m more patriotic than ever before because I feel that this problem can only be solved if we work together as a whole community…

While Jamal looks to the future, Karolina can't help thinking about how she might have changed her son's fate.

KAROLINA DAM:  Here is something about the winter...

Two years on, she finds some comfort in rereading his final text messages.

KAROLINA DAM:  That was it.

And reaching out to over parents whose children have also joined Islamic State.

KAROLINA DAM:  These are things that are so hard to talk about because it's taboo, it's the mother of a terrorist, whatnot. There are huge aspects with going public and telling these things - huge. And for some, they just - they can't function anymore. A lot of the parents I have, they don't work anymore. They can't go outside the door.

REPORTER:  With sons overseas in Syria?

KAROLINA DAM:  Yeah, yeah. I have actually done some things to try to give myself something that would ease my pain away and Islam, when you're a martyr, you're actually the most beautiful bird in paradise, so he's my beautiful green bird in paradise. I have got a birdcage with some things in as well and that birdcage is open. So if he's a bird, the beautiful bird in paradise, the door is always open. There's always room for him.

REPORTER:  For Lukas to come home.



evan williams

story producer
joel tozer

benjamin emery

stephanie stafford
kelly hawke

uffe mulvad

story editor
micah mcgown

maria theusen bleeg

original music
vicki hansen

8th August 2017