Interview with the Mayor of Aarhus Jacob Bundsgaard

Please outline the main elements of the Aarhus model to prevent radicalization.
Generally speaking, the essence of the Aarhus model is preventing radicalization by working with at-risk citizens to improve their possibilities for inclusion in society and to help them develop better life skills. The specific intervention depends on the situation – for example, counselling parents or at-risk youth themselves, mentorship programs or parent networks. Regardless of the intervention, the aim is to include these at-risk youth in society again as active, participating citizens. But don’t get me wrong. If someone has committed a criminal offence, that person will be prosecuted and convicted as a matter of course. This is not some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, but a combination of dialogue and a firm hand. That’s why it’s also important to emphasize that this initiative is being carried out in close cooperation between the City of Aarhus and the East Jutland Police, as well as involving Aarhus University, the Prison and Probation Service, and other partners.

What are the main achievements?
Well, for example we’ve succeeded in reducing the number of young people travelling to Syria to participate in the conflict from 31 in 2013 to one in 2014 and two in 2015.
We can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but we believe that our efforts have had a significant impact. We’ve established a dialogue with the milieus and minority groups with a history of recruitment to violent extremism.

In 2004, the City Council in Aarhus adopted the Aarhus model for citizen involvement based on the values of the city: reliability, respect and commitment. How did this process impact your deradicalization programme?
The citizen-centric model for citizen involvement inspired the central role citizen involvement plays in the City of Aarhus’ integration policy (2007), in which our anti-radicalization efforts are anchored. Although the model for citizen involvement in relation to the prevention of radicalization is significantly more differentiated, it is still based on our values.

The Aarhus’s exit programme builds on a longstanding, integrated approach to crime prevention that has operated for decades, what are the main strengths of this approach?
A major strength of our approach is the close collaboration that has been established between the different government agencies, particularly between the city and the police, because it provides unique opportunities to identify and intervene in relation to youth who may be at risk for radicalization, just as the involvement of several local government agencies makes it possible to take a holistic approach to intervention.

Please explain how citizens are involved in preventing radicalization and promoting deradicalization.
Dialogue is central to our approach to prevention, for example in relation to identifying young people who are already on the path to radicalization. To facilitate this, we have a number of concrete initiatives, such as an ‘Info house’ that parents, caseworkers, teacher and youth club staff can contact if they’re concerned that a person is at risk of radicalization. This is also relevant in relation to prevention in general; we facilitate dialogue-based workshops for young people in lower secondary school and youth education programs, and we have established parents’ groups for relatives of people from Aarhus who are suspected of participating, are currently participating, or have participated in the conflict in Syria to provide them with counselling and support.

What is the role played by minority groups in addressing the risks of violent extremism?
This depends on what specific minority groups are in question. But because our efforts in the most general sense are aimed at inclusion, maintaining respectful but critical dialogue with the city’s various minorities is an important factor in strengthening our anti-radicalization efforts. However, it’s also clear that in relation to a milieu such as the highly publicized Grimhøj Mosque, they have to decide whether they want to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.
Who are the main actors engaged in your deradicalization programme, how many experts are involved?
The City of Aarhus and the East Jutland Police. We also work with the Prison and Probation Service and Aarhus University. There are also additional partners at a national and international level. It’s difficult to provide a concrete ‘head count’ of the employees involved, both because they also have other functions, and also because of the broad nature of our efforts, which means that schoolteachers and after-school club staff can also play a role.

Do you have former extremists involved as mentors?
No former extremists are involved as mentors.

How many at-risk- youth and returning foreign fighters have been involved in the programme?
This depends on which part of the program you’re referring to. Parts of the preventive program (for example workshops (150+) in schools and at youth education institutions/public meetings) have been aimed at hundreds of young people. We have had 165 specific cases of at-risk youth reported to our Info house over the last four years. Most of these cases have been dealt with through counselling. So far, nineteen people have been involved in the mentor program. Eight individuals are still being mentored; some of them are foreign fighters, some of them are at-risk youth – in relation to political as well as religious extremism. To the best of our knowledge, we have had thirty-three individuals who have left for Syria/Iraq from Aarhus, of whom sixteen have returned and five are presumed dead.

Would you share with us a success story?
For obvious reasons, I can’t share individual case stories with you. However, I can say that we regard the fact that we have stopped or significantly reduced the traffic to Syria as an unconditional success story.

Please explain how the rehabilitation and reintegration strategies for former terrorists are perceived by the citizens of Aarhus.
They have been positively received, although there will always be critical voices. This is why it’s been important to us to emphasize at every step of the way that although the program can never provide any kind of guarantee, our results document that it works in relation to a large majority of the at-risk youth involved. In this way, the Aarhus model is also important to our citizens’ sense of safety and security.

What are the main challenges and main criticism you have received in Aarhus and in Denmark?
Criticism of the model has been limited. The major criticism has been that our approach is too soft, which in my view is misdirected. It’s important for me to point out that our work is based on two pillars: efforts based on social dialogue and efforts based on police involvement. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for people who have committed or who are committing crimes.
Do you think the perceived threat of terrorism is increasing the clash of values, discrimination and polarization of the societies, putting at risk efforts to build cohesive and inclusive communities?
At worst, I fear that this may be case. That’s why it’s important for the City of Aarhus to link the prevention of radicalization with efforts to promote citizenship and reduce discrimination. We want to be a social cohesive city with equal opportunity for all.

How much do you think that unemployment, the sense of alienation and frustration young people experience in our modern society are determinants in generating violent extremism?
That’s a difficult question, because there’s no clear-cut answer. However, there are many indications that discrimination is one of the most significant factors in creating the conditions that favor radicalization. And this is one of the reasons that we place such a high priority on citizenship, inclusion, cooperation with our citizens, and employment.

To which extent do you think the Aarhus model is adaptable to different environments? What are the main challenges of promoting such model in societies where civil society participation and dialogue with institutions are weak?
I don’t think that it’s necessarily a good idea to copy others’ approaches, but on the other hand I do believe that we can find inspiration elsewhere and apply that to our own local contexts. That said, however, cooperation with citizens, influence and trust are important parameters no matter where you are. If you don’t have that trust and that cooperation with your citizens, you have to ask yourself why not? And start there.

A modern society pretending “to enforce laws to legislate on how people think, feel or believe”, is a weak society undermining democratic values as well as the possibility of creating the ground for peace and development. What is the strategy you suggest to achieve people security without undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms?
The combination of dialogue and trust – or the development of this combination where it does not already exist. Constructive, positive citizenship instead of oppositional, negative ‘counter citizenship’. Community and shared responsibility.