Officers try to stop Muslim youth from radicalizing

Brussels — When towns across Belgium started seeing alarming rates of young men leaving to fight in Syria, lawmakers offered a very Belgian solution — put a public servant on it.

Since Belgium had become the European Union country sending the most fighters to Syria per capita, local officials freed up close to $2.3 million in U.S. money to help recruit fighters.

"In 2013, we saw around 70 youths leave to fight in Syria," said Johan Vermant, a spokeman for Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever. He says the city’s five deradicalization officers, hired in 2014, have been effective.

Vermant said there are still a number of people who have left. "But the figures show that that group has become smaller," he added.

Deradicalization officers can be found everywhere from heavily immigrant districts in Brussels such as Sint-Joost and Anderlecht, to sleepy towns like Maaseik in the northeastern province of Limburg.

The officers are typically embedded in a municipality’s crime prevention team and serve as a bridge between at-risk youths and their families, and social workers, community workers and counselors on the ground.

"What they try to do is get a foot in the door with these youths at home, establish contact with their families so they can assess what problems specifically led them to enter the picture," Vermant said. "Sometimes people appear on the radar for reasons that aren’t radicalization itself — for instance no future prospects, problems at home, problems at school. The aim is then to offer youths assistance so they can get back on the right track."

Deradicalization officers in Flanders — the Dutch-speaking portion of Belgium — typically act on tips from relatives, teachers, youth workers, counselors and mosques.

"Of course those are not all potential terrorists — the majority of reports are on people we don’t need to massively worry about,” said Dirk Staessens, a deradicalization officer in the Flemish town of Kortrijk.

Staessens said they saw spikes both after the Paris and Brussels attacks. “We have had a number of cases that were transferred to the federal police, which means they are being very closely monitored.”

Still, the program has come under fire.

Dyab Abou Jahjah, Belgium’s best-known Muslim activist, wrote in the newspaper De Standaard that a "deradicalization industry" had developed that "was threatening to weaken our society with incorrect insights and policies in order to safeguard positions and subsidy budgets."

In the wake of the attacks in Brussels in April, critics said these officers have failed to achieve exactly what they were hired to do: track and prevent the radicalization of Muslim youth.

Others noted that Brussels’ deradicalization officers were going about their work in an amateurish way compared to their counterparts in Flanders — not based on a list of names from intelligence services, but rather randomly looking for radicalized youth in neighborhoods.

Lieven Pauwels, a professor in criminology at the University of Ghent, says it’s too simple to dismiss the work of Brussels’ deradicalization officers. The capital, with 19 districts and multiple police zones, cannot be compared to other Belgian municipalities, he said.

"It is extra difficult to achieve successes there because of the complex institutional structures there," he said. "Things will take more time there than in Flemish municipalities."

Moreover, he says, it’s too early to evaluate the fruit of the officers’ labor in Brussels.

"Prevention policies have failed, sure. People underestimated the problem,” Pauwels said. “But not enough has been done at this point to say that the deradicalization policies have failed. If they haven’t begun yet, they can’t have already failed."

Still, even the deradicalization officers themselves have questioned their job description.

"I’m not sure whether it is possible to deradicalize someone," Staessens said. "What I do know is that you can monitor people, that you can flag people and assess whether they represent a risk. But whether you can completely make someone change their mind as a public servant — that I don’t know."

He says they follow up on people but can never be sure whether they will radicalize.

"You can’t look inside someone’s head," he said.