Europe takes rehab approach to Islamic extremists
BERLIN -- Chris Boudreau’s son Damian told her over dinner on a November evening in 2012 that he was going to Egypt to study Arabic, the language of Islam.
She never saw him again.
"He flew to Seattle, then Amsterdam, then into Istanbul," said Boudreau. "There was a training camp just outside the city where radicals train prior to crossing the border into Syria."
Fourteen months later, the 22-year-old Canadian convert to Islam was dead, apparently killed in fighting between rival groups of Islamic militants in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Boudreau was left to wonder what she could have done to stop her son from becoming a jihadi foot soldier. For answers she’s turning to Europe, where authorities are increasingly using outreach programs to prevent and even reverse radicalization. Initiatives include school counseling, emergency hotlines and even programs to help find jobs for returning jihadists.
The West has grappled with preventing radicalization since 9/11, when a Hamburg terror cell emerged as a key force in the attacks. The conflict in Syria, where thousands of Westerners are believed to be fighting, has added urgency to the challenge. In May, a 29-year-old man who had fought in Syria was arrested in France on suspicion of shooting dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
"So far, as a society we’ve only reacted when it was too late," said Kemal Bozay, the son of Turkish immigrants in the German city of Bochum. "This is the first time we’re approaching the problem pre-emptively."
Bozay runs a project called Wegweiser, which means ‘signpost’ in German. It seeks to prevent radicalization among Muslim teenagers in the city, which has a large Islamic community, with the help of schools, families, religious leaders and job centers. Besides Bochum, there are two Wegweiser centers in Bonn and Duesseldorf -- all three aimed at engaging troubled youths before they fall into radical Islam.
The centers send out social workers who intervene when they see recruiters approaching teenagers on playgrounds, football fields and school yards, or when they carry out Islamic conversions on market squares. The workers engage the youths in conversation and try to offer solutions that steer them away from fundamentalism.
The centers, which were launched in April, have the backing of the security service in Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia. The state has seen a jump in the number of Salafists, adherents of an extreme fundamentalist version of Islam that has authorities worried. Their numbers have grown to 6,000 in Germany, according to official figures, with 1,800 in North-Rhine Westphalia alone.
"Salafism is a lifestyle package for young people because it offers them social warmth, a simple black-and-white view of the world, recognition by their peer group -- basically everything they lack in real life," said Burkhard Freier, who heads the state’s domestic intelligence service.
Most of those drawn to fundamentalism in the West are the children or grandchildren of Muslim immigrants, but a sizable number of Islamic radicals are converts like Boudreau’s son, Damian Clairmont, who found religion at 17 after battling depression.
Initially Islam appeared to help Clairmont. "He became very peaceful, calm and happy again," said Boudreau. But as time passed her son became more fundamentalist in his beliefs. "We were never made aware that this type of issue was a problem in Canada," she said. "Nor did we really understand anything about radicalization or foreign fighters."
Two years ago, Germany launched a national telephone hotline for people worried that their friends or relatives might be turning to radical Islam. It is funded and operated by the government, but callers are quickly referred to one of four civil groups that handle the actual case work.
So far, the hotline has received more than 900 calls, resulting in 250 cases, says Florian Endres of Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Each week two or three more are added.
One of the groups is Hayat, which means "life" in Arabic and launched in 2011. Based in Berlin, it has grown out of a long-running project aimed at helping far-right extremists leave the neo-Nazis scene. Founder Bernd Wagner, a burly former police investigator, felt authorities focused too much on locking up extremists -- failing to properly address what draws young people to violent ideologies in the first place.
"We saw a parallel between Islamism and the far right," Wagner said, adding that the group has helped some 528 people quit the far-right scene and de-radicalized dozens of Muslims.
Unlike its far-right program, Hayat doesn’t work directly with Islamic radicals -- saying they are more hardened to persuasion from outside. "We try to use the power of the family," Wagner said.
Hayat is reluctant to discuss details of specific cases, for privacy reasons. But a typical example will involve a family that contacts Hayat before a relative travels to Syria. The counselors then focus on helping the family convince him, or sometimes her, to stay home.
In more serious cases, the call comes after a family finds a farewell letter from a loved one who has already left. Hayat counselor Daniel Koehler and his team then coach the family in how to re-establish and maintain contact, with the aim of bringing the person back home.
Demand is huge. But with only three staff and the need to be on call 24/7 in case of emergency, there are only so many cases the group can handle, said Koehler.
"The most important thing is to avoid reacting to provocation," said Koehler, explaining that Islamic extremists have usually been drilled to expect a challenge to their beliefs, and react badly.
"We encourage the family to connect with their son or daughter on an emotional level."
In one Skype call, Koehler said, a mother opposed her son’s attempts to get approval for a suicide attack in Syria, prompting him to launch into a lengthy religious diatribe.
"After an hour the family asked him how he was, whether he was eating, and so forth. He just calmed down completely," said Koehler. Since then the son has become less radical and contacts his family regularly.
Hayat alone has had 83 cases over the past three years, 63 of which are still active. Apart from Canada, the group has received inquiries from Austria, Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands. Koehler said that in about 30 cases a "clear de-radicalization" has taken place. At least 18 cases involved people considered to be serious security risks, either because they planned to travel or had been to Syria, or because they were suspected of planning domestic terrorism.
Koehler and his team take care to reassure callers that their concerns will be treated confidentially, unless there is an immediate danger.
"With cases related to Syria," he said, "we’ve had several parents say they are grateful if security services step in."
Boudreau wishes that had happened in her son’s case. She claims that Canadian authorities failed to tell her they had been observing Damian before he left for Syria.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service declined to discuss details of the case, but said it was working hard to "help prevent young people from going down a path that often has no good outcome."
Seeing a lack of support, Boudreau traveled last week to Europe to meet with Koehler and see whether Hayat’s program can be imitated in Canada. Hayat will start a pilot program in London and the Netherlands later this year.
"Canada will be facing a large number of returnees considering it is very easy to come back home and cross the very large boarder into the U.S., which is where I feel they really want to get to," she said. "My intention is to bring Hayat to Canada and continue to try and reach out to assist other parents experiencing the same stress and loss that we have been through."
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