How Denmark Learnt From Its Own Charlie Hebdo Moment

The autumn of 2005 was Denmark’s Charlie Hebdo moment, except it was more deadly. On 30 September, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, including one showing him with a bomb in his turban. Local Muslims reacted with fury, and soon protests were engulfing Denmark.

By early 2006, 200 people had been killed, Denmark’s embassies in Beirut and Damascus had been destroyed, and Danish, European and Christian organisations in Muslim countries had received threats. Then prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen called it Denmark’s worst crisis since the Second World War.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that in the years following the cartoon crisis, it has mostly been quiet on Denmark’s radical Muslim front. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems. For every million Danish residents, 100 have joined Isis fighting in Syria or Iraq, a recent survey shows. Only Belgium has a larger share of foreign fighters. Yet there have been no more attacks on Danish targets at home or abroad. Denmark’s secret, which French authorities may want to study more closely, is the elevation of the humble social worker. “Denmark hasn’t been afraid to tackle the Islamic radicalism problem,” notes Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish Defence College. “Around 2008, it began addressing Islamic radicalism-related crime through prevention work, creating the so-called SSP model where schools, social services and the police work together. What’s equally important is that government agencies on the state level work hand in hand with local authorities.”

In fact, because the cartoon crisis hit this peaceful country with such surprise and force, officials had to innovate as they went along. “The lesson learned was that security had to be on permanently high alert, which it has been ever since,” Fogh Rasmussen says. “We also learned that integration is not just about jobs and education, it’s also about values. Among the radicals you see many well-educated young people.” That’s where social workers now play a crucial role. The SSP model features a corps of mentors working with at-risk youth, steering them away from radical groups or encouraging them to leave if they have already joined, and maintaining close connections with their families.

Social workers involved in the programme are trained by the Ministry of Children, Gender Equality, Integration and Social Affairs in conjunction with PET, the country’s national security intelligence agency. Working with PET, Danish prisons have developed a staff retraining programme with the goal of preventing radicalism. Last year, authorities also added psychologists to the setup with the specific goal of reintegrating returning foreign fighters, and a new government plan includes training youth who’ll serve as role models and facilitate dialogue with youngsters at risk of radicalisation.

“Another crucial aspect is that Denmark has understood the importance of working actively for integration and is much better at not letting ghettos form,” notes Ranstorp. “Politically, there’s some hard talk, but in reality they make sure that neighbourhoods are integrated. The authorities even have a direct dialogue with mosques such as Grimhøj. It’s not clear that it has any influence on the mosques, but at least it’s there to signal red lines or during crisis situations.” Grimhøj, which is suspected of radicalising a number of the foreign fighters, has long caused controversy. Imam Oussama el Saadi has said that he hopes Isis will win and declined to denounce the Charlie Hebdo attack, noting that “the Protestant and Catholic churches didn’t distance themselves from the acts of the terrorist Breivik”.

The social workers and psychologists, then, often work under extremely adverse conditions, trying to prevent jihadist acts one would-be jihadi at a time. And, with the government in charge of overall strategy, the real action takes place at the city level. Ranstorp notes that it works better in Aarhus and smaller cities, while reaching would-be jihadis in Copenhagen poses a challenge. But as far as Morten Storm is concerned, the painstaking prevention work is a futile effort. “The Danish model is the most misguided approach you can imagine,” he argues. “The most important step that needs to be taken is preventing those who go abroad for terrorist training from coming back.”

Storm knows a thing or two about Islamic radicalism. A Bandidos member-turned-Muslim, the Dane went on to join al-Qaida, later becoming an informant for PET. Storm helped PET track down his friend, the Islamic hate preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, allowing the CIA to kill al-Awlaki in 2011. Storm, who now lives in hiding, documents his colourful career in the 2014 book Agent Storm.

The Danish government is planning a law along the lines of what the unorthodox former terrorist suggests. “The threat posed by foreign fighters in Denmark is a highly prioritised area by the Danish government,” Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen says. “In order to address this threat most effectively, we’ve launched a new action plan that focuses on both intervention and prevention. Recently we’ve introduced a bill that enables the police to refuse the issuing of passports, to revoke passports from suspected foreign fighters and to issue travel bans.” That, of course, does not include Danish citizens and residents simply going abroad for terrorist training, the very people Storm worries will commit atrocities at home.

Denmark’s conscientious mentoring, dialoguing and counselling risks can offer little defence to violent international forces, even though the government plan gamely offers solutions for growing concerns such as online radicalisation. “Even when [jihadi terror] incidents only involve lone wolves, they’re part of an international threat scenario, because the perpetrators have been inspired by international events,” says Fogh Rasmussen, who went on to become Nato’s Secretary-General, leaving office in October 2014. “The Danish security services have prevented several attacks, but we need improved international cooperation in order to be more effective. Returning foreign fighters constitutes a real threat.”

But what if Charlie Hebdo and the cartoon crisis require a different response altogether, one more profound than mentoring and travel bans? As Michael Melchior sees it, European countries need a fundamental dialogue to establish how their ethnic and religious groups are going to co-exist. He speaks from experience: the seventh-generation Danish rabbi is a former social affairs minister and deputy foreign minister of Israel, the Chief Rabbi of Norway and a leading voice for religious reconciliation. “We’ve never had a fundamental debate about the parameters in which different groups can live together in our multicultural society,” he says. “But everybody is in fear of going into that debate because, suddenly, you’ll see that society has changed.”

That change may involve more adjustment on all sides than simply accepting new names and diets. “We’re living in a multicultural society where values clash with other values,” observes Melchior, who is also the rabbi of a Jerusalem synagogue. “I strongly believe in freedom of speech, but we also need to use that freedom with wisdom. Although the bloodshed and killings [in Paris] just makes one totally identify with those who became victims in the battle for that freedom of speech, the ultimate goal of democracy in a multicultural world can’t be to trample the beliefs of others.” In Melchior’s book, one step towards successful multicultural coexistence is this: “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you have to say everything always.”