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Mentoring Program Works To Prevent Radicalization In Copenhagen


For years, Denmark has been testing programs to prevent young men and women from joining extremist groups. The city of Copenhagen set up a hotline in 2009 for people to call if they suspect someone they know is starting to embrace radical Islam. The city also has a special mentoring program to try to prevent people from going to fight for ISIS.

Now intelligence officials say the number of Danes leaving for Syria is in decline. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston went to Denmark to understand how its version of de-radicalization works.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: To hear a man we'll call Mohammed tell it, convincing young people not to embrace radical Islam requires a two-pronged approach.

MOHAMMED: One is the physical needs of the individual, like job, education, like finding a new place to live.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that should sound familiar because those are the kinds of things social workers typically help with. Radicalization cases, though, require delving into something else.

MOHAMMED: The other thing is also kind of trying to challenge the way of thinking, trying to help them be more critical about what they hear. So a lot of them want to discuss foreign policy, for instance, American nature foreign policy, Afghanistan wars, Iraq all the hysteria as well. And they have a very black and white way of thinking.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A very black and white way of thinking that's hard to change. But Denmark is dispatching mentors and social workers like Mohammed to try to do just that. Mohammed works for a de-radicalization program in Copenhagen called VINK, and he looks like the perfect mentor, the kind of guy you'd want to be friends with. He's wearing a jean jacket and a T-shirt. And there's a great softness about him.

He told me he learned English by watching "The Simpsons" on television, and he asked NPR not to use his real name because of the sensitivity of his work. You see, he's trying to stop Danish 20-somethings from traveling to Syria. A lot of the young people he works with have been mixed up with drugs or petty theft. Then, he says, they find religion. Their parents initially, anyway, think this is good news - trading a life of crime for a life of piety. But there's a dark side. Their child is radicalizing.

MOHAMMED: So the parents, in many cases - they only realize once the kid has left for Syria, and they're like shocked. How couldn't I have seen it coming?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's why, Mohammed said, the people who generally call a hotline to report radicalization are friends and teachers, and then mentors from VINK step in.

MOHAMMED: We'll discuss with them and ask them what's the reason that you think it's your responsibility as an individual, let's say Muslim, in Little Copenhagen to fight a war that is on a much higher scale?

TEMPLE-RASTON: What's a common answer to those questions?

MOHAMMED: The common answer is that it's my responsibility as a Muslim to fight against the tyranny.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mohammed says that if the VINK counselors can be introduced into the process early enough, they can make a difference. Sometimes mentors will sit down with a young man or woman and just Google things on a laptop. They'll explore various conspiracy theories together and dissect them to uncover the truth. Other times, it means introducing a young person to someone they might not otherwise have met. One VINK mentor took a young man starting to embrace radical Islam to a coffee with a bunch of journalists who told him about Syria.

MOHAMMED: He actually left the cafe having one of those awe like, wow. That was so interesting. Because now he actually kind of had an opening. He started viewing the world in other ways of thinking. And this was kind of amazing because it was just one coffee meeting.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Danes see the issue of radicalization differently than the Americans do. While the Danish government certainly wants to stop terrorist attacks at home, it also feels a responsibility to protect these young people from self-destructive behavior. That second component - protecting young people from radicalization - seems to be less of a priority in this country. Though, there are signs that might be changing.

DANIEL KOEHLER: De-radicalization or rehabilitation or rehabilitation or off-ramp programs - whatever you want to call - it's about strengthening the non-violent ideals and values that our societies are built on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Daniel Koehler a German radicalization expert who's in the process of developing a U.S. program that borrows lessons, like mentoring, from programs like VINK. The idea is to identify at-risk youth and then try to step in before they contact ISIS or buy plane tickets to Syria.

KOEHLER: We need to have an alternative to just waiting until they have passed that line and lock them up for 15 years.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In the U.S., just buying a plane ticket to go join ISIS is considered a crime. That's what happened to a handful of young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis. They pleaded guilty earlier this year to wanting to join ISIS, and Koehler interviewed them. He's expected to present in open court what he discovered during their conversations. And Koehler says there are techniques that can change mindsets.

KOEHLER: Counseling is part of it. Mentoring is part of it. There is a myriad of potential tools to be used.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Six states have asked Koehler to try and develop programs to help de-radicalize young people in this country. So far, it's unclear how those efforts will affect the sentences of young men who have already pleaded guilty or have been convicted of trying to join ISIS. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.