Jihad Jane

What the U.S. Can Learn from Europe About Dealing with Terrorists

How do we deal with American supporters of terrorist groups like ISIS? Europe may have some surprising lessons with its kinder, gentler approach to homegrown jihadists.


This past summer, Colleen LaRose, known by her self-anointed handle ‘Jihad Jane’, was sentenced to ten years in prison. That takes care of her but more than a decade into the “War on Terror” the question of how to deal with homegrown terrorists is still a work in progress in the U.S. and while it’s not something most Americans like to hear, Europe may have something to teach us on this score.

LaRose’s sentence was at least a decade short of what prosecutors had been angling for in a case that involved a plot to murder Swedish artist Lars Vilks for depicting the head of the Prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog.

The sentencing of LaRose might have drawn more attention had it not been drowned out by the summer’s news concerning the rise of the latest brutal radical extremist group, the Islamic State. If anything, the two were connected, with the Islamic State and their emphasis on recruitment serving as a reminder that cases like LaRose’s aren’t going away any time soon. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise the governments around the world are taking fresh looks at terrorist recruitment and exploring a variety of methods to meet the danger. One such method being pioneered by the Danish government counter-intuitively posits that finding and punishing every single Jihad Jane might be a fruitless effort. Instead, it concentrates on providing certain returning recruits with social assistance – therapy, help finding work, education – in an effort to address the circumstances that make people more likely to succumb to terrorist recruitment in the first place.

LaRose, now 50, was exposed to Jihadist philosophy the way anyone is introduced to anything in the 21st century – via the Internet. And although LaRose was brought into the terrorist fold years ago, her recruitment by Al Qaeda still serves as a sort of case study in how disaffected Americans are targeted and lured by Jihadi elements. On her way to becoming Jihadi Jane LaRose hit all the points on the Western terrorist recruit scorecard. She was a poor, abused, and dejected woman—a perfect fit for the profile of someone willing to go to violent extremes to find purpose, identity, and a semblance of agency over their lives. As Richard Barrett of the private intelligence agency Soufan Group wrote of recruits, “Presumably people are seeking a greater purpose and meaning in their lives.”

There’s something particularly terrifying about cases like LaRose where American citizens are recruited by radical Islamic factions, but the fear might be out of proportion to the actual threat.

Despite warnings from FBI director James Comey in May, and President Obama in September, that Western recruits, battle-hardened by combat in Syria, could return to their home countries to conduct grisly attacks, many experts consider the threat to be overhyped. Most people who go to Syria simply wont make it back. They’re likely to die on the battlefield. Of the ones that do survive, some will be too disillusioned to carry out an attack. Government agencies will be attempting to keep a close eye on them, regardless.

And really, recruitment is more of a European problem than an American one. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. isn’t in the top 5 for countries with a returning jihadi problem.

Russia and France have had most citizens travel to Syria to join the fighting according to the Post (it’s suspected that most of these people joined up with the Islamic State), each with over 700. The United Kingdom comes in next with 400. The United States is rather low on the list, with around 70 citizens being suspected of joining the fight in Syria.

So it makes sense, with Europeans providing the bulk of the Islamic State’s foreign recruitment, to look to Europe’s governments. The programs they’ve adopted are like a real time laboratory experiment for defusing some very dangerous compounds. The results of those experiments are playing out right now and can provide the U.S. with examples of how, and how not, to handle radical recruitment and the threat posed when citizen-jihadists come home from the battlefield.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that most European countries are responding to the rise in Islamic State recruitment by cracking down on suspected and returning recruits. France recently passed tough legislation that allows them to seize passports and ID’s from would-be jihadists. In Germany, 300 returning recruits are facing trial. Initially Britain took a different approach, allowing jihadists to leave unimpeded—why not let them take their violent plans elsewhere, the thinking went, and then banning their return. But that method has faltered and now jihadists are facing stiff prison sentences when they come home.

The situation is a bit different in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. As Preben Bertelson, a psychology professor at Aarhus University explained to the Guardian, “Look: these are young people struggling with pretty much the same issues as any others – getting a grip on their lives, making sense of things, finding a meaningful place in society. We have to say: provided you have done nothing criminal, we will help you find a way back.” And that’s the concept at the core of what’s come to be called “the Aarhus method”.

Provided that you didn’t commit any violent crimes (and not all those lured to Syria with dreams of jihad actually do), the Danish government will help you get back on your feet when you return. After being screened, they’ll provide returning jihadists with help finding work, housing, education and counseling. They don’t try to reform Islamist ideology or tell those returning what to believe – just so long as they don’t advocate violence.

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Of course, with such a soft-handed approach comes criticism from the Danish right.

Marie Krarup, a member of the Danish People’s Party, says, “They are being much too soft [in Aarhus], and they fail to see the problem. The problem is Islam. Islam itself is radical. You cannot integrate a great number of Muslims into a Christian country.” But Krarup’s complaint is an argument crouched in ideology and detached from the actual results of the program, which so far seem to be positive.

From 2012 to 2013, 31 men left Aarhus bound for combat in Syria. This year that number has dropped to one single individual. Allan Aarslev, the superintendent in charge of the policing end of the program, says, “What’s easy is to pass tough new laws. Harder is to go through a real process with individuals: a panel of experts, counseling, healthcare, assistance getting back into education, with employment, maybe accommodation. With returning to everyday life and society. We don’t do this out of political conviction; we do it because we think it works.”

Somewhere between Krarup’s reactionary posturing and Aarsley’s confidence in the initial results, there exists room for cautious optimism, hopeful that the program works while being a little uncomfortable with methods referred to as “soft-handed” in Al Jazeera.

Finding “what works” in a field where ideology intersects with law enforcement, and any future terrorist attack could be blamed on a policy failure, is a tall order. But it’s necessary. There’s strong evidence to suggest that America’s responses to suspected terrorists has been occasionally, not only ineffective, but also counterproductive, erring on the side of bureaucratic inertia.

American law enforcement, specifically the Justice Department and the FBI, have had some high profile successes at thwarting domestic attacks but they have also earned a reputation for using dubious methods like entrapment.

According to a 214-page study released by the Human Rights Watch, the Feds coerced many, if not most, American terrorism suspects into criminal behavior. It’s difficult to prove entrapment in court, however, because of anti-Muslim sentiments and a procedural bias towards trusting law enforcement that’s built into the judicial process.

As the Human Rights Watch report states, “U.S. law requires that to prove entrapment a defendant show both that the government induce him to commit the act in question and that he was not ‘predisposed’ to commit it. This predisposition inquiry focuses attention on the defendant’s background, opinion, beliefs, and reputation – in other words, not on the crime, but on the nature of the defendant. This character inquiry makes it exceptionally difficult for a defendant to succeed in raising the entrapment defense, particularly in the terrorism context, where inflammatory stereotypes and highly charged characterizations of Islam and foreigners often prevail.”

A similar report by Project Salam, titled “Inventing Terrorists”, claims that 95% of terrorist arrests have come as a result of the FBI foiling it’s own plots to bait and coerce suspects. According to Naureen Shah, former director of the Columbia School of Law’s Human Rights Institute, “These were not individuals who were planning on their own to actually conduct terrorist activities. They were individuals who were vulnerable to being recruited. They’re young men – an 18 year old, they’re people with mental illness – schizophrenia, they’re people who are susceptible because they want money and can be bribed.”

As recent attacks in Toronto and New York, committed by mentally disturbed ‘lone wolf’ terrorists have shown, there’s not always a clear line between hardline jihadists and deranged young men—it’s almost always young men—who are susceptible to extremist dog whistles.

American law enforcement has relied on its extensive and legally questionable surveillance apparatus to cast a wide net of criminal suspicion over American Muslims and catch terrorists before they act. It has been far less active in productively engaging Muslim communities, to steer potential recruits away from violent ideologies and work with those who have already been radicalized to show them that there is a way out.

But there are some parts of the U.S. taking steps in that direction.

America could have its own version of the Aarhus method in Minnesota. The state is home to the country’s largest community of Somali immigrants, numbering around 30,000 and gathered predominantly around the Twin Cities. Two Somali men there were charged by Federal Prosecutors in November with conspiracy to join a terrorist organization in Syria. Peter Erlinder, a defense attorney representing one of the men, hinted that proceedings were underway to negotiate for immunity for his client in return for cooperation and information. The Feds are more interesting in finding out who is doing the recruiting rather than punishing those being recruited. It seems like a nuanced distinction, but it could have huge implications.

U.S. Attorney Andy Luger sat down with 50 Twin Cities Somali leaders in November to discuss ways of addressing terrorist extremism at its root. In a one-year pilot program called Building Community Resiliency, Luger wants to counteract the radicalization of Minnesotan youth through expanding jobs and youth programs. “It’s time for the community to work with the government to address the root causes of radicalism. This is not about gathering intelligence or expanding surveillance. We want to ‘prevent’ – so that we’re not back in the same room 10 years from now addressing the same issues,” Luger commented on the program. And while it doesn’t go quite as far as what’s happening in Aarhus, it engages the community, addresses the causes of radicalism, and doesn’t rely on entrapment. Instead of straight-jacking itself with hard line ideology, it’s a realistic, goal-oriented response. In other words, it might actually work.