Leaving Copenhagen on a road trip to Aarhus. I have heard a lot about the police work of Detective Inspector Thorlief Link, who has made huge breakthroughs in his approach to working with young recruits for Syria who intend to join the Islamic State. It’s hard to imagine the country known for being the happiest can have young people leaving to fight in Syria.
Meeting Thorlief is immediately warm and comfortable; we make coffee together and sit in a standard office space; white desks, tables and chairs, however lit in a warm glow. I have been looking forward to this meeting for some time. An opportunity to meet a police man who has successfully brought young men back from the path of terrorism with love. Once seated we immediately start talking about his work. Although the articles, Youtube clips and podcasts that I have come across are very positive about his work and progressive approach to young terrorists, he explains how this is not always the case. The Washington post wrote about him under the headline; ‘Rolling out the carpet for the Jihadi’. So, I set out to understand this somewhat controversial anti-terrorism approach.
Thorleif describes how those who have been to Syria come back disillusioned by the experience; ‘with an empty head’. This is the opportunity to fill their heads with the ‘good stuff’. Thorlief sought the help of mentors to work with the young men. Mentors who were wise and had the same religion to offer alternatives and understanding. He is acutely aware of all that has to be undone in terms of the young mens negative self-talk. They have grown up listening to the news, media and politicians speak badly about them; Muslims. So, the language the boys were using demonstrated their feelings of being outcast, ‘I don’t belong’ and ‘I’m not welcome here’. The message Throlief wanted to be conveyed through the mentor was ‘you are born and raised here, even if you are Muslim, even if you have black skin, you are welcome here’. Mentors would spend time with them in cafes or the during trips to cinema. This too was part of the re-integration, the young men didn’t feel like they could go to these places as ‘people will look at me because of my dark skin’.
Young, white, blonde Danish boy, Victor was also a recruit of the IS not fitting the typical brief that Thorleif described earlier, Victor’s face jumps out at me on the screen. He had ADD. His entire school experience was blighted by his special educational need, he never fitted in, no friends and many devastating experiences of severe bullying by other boys. At the age of 19 he took to the kindness of 2 Muslim men who offered him security, belonging and brotherhood. They gave him ‘easy answers to complicated questions’. The allure of friendship and a feeling of long awaited happiness, Victor was converted. His parents were so relieved to see Victor happy and belonging for the first time, ‘what was good for Victor was good for us’. He was quickly moved from a peaceful experience of Islam to joining the IS. He wrote to his parents from his travels in Cairo and Syria speaking of his ‘path to the next life’. Thorlief shows me the last photograph taken of Victor; dressed in military clothes with a string of bombs around his waist. Following that moment Victor walked into a military cafe to blow it up, killing himself and 18 Iraqi soldiers. Thorlief reflects on Victors journey with sadness; ‘This journey started with school’. We cannot deny the importance of belonging and importance in school. I think about the students who are unable to access their education due to their special educational needs and can find themselves excluded from lessons and misunderstood. Do we really consider the long-term effects of this?
The Tipping Point:
Thorlief shows me a diagram that illustrates how they identify the help needed in the community. I am immediately struck by the similarities to The Pivotal Principals:
Green= 95% self-sustaining group- we must keep looking after them, you can’t neglect them just because they are ok
Yellow= 3% going ok but need help
Red= 2% in trouble
These are exactly the same figures we use; the 95% that are ok must still be looked after, nurtured, and recognised. The remaining 5% need much more specialised help and focus for prevention.
Incidentals and Accidentals:
“To meet him, To raise him, and somehow to relate to him and to bring him back to society.”
Thorlief is undoubtedly charismatic. However, the real business of going to a radicalised young man’s house and convincing him to come to the police station is no mean feat. He describes the process he goes through when he is given a lead to visit someone who is in need of his intervention. He describes the moment that a young man opens the front door to him. “I have to make a decision in the first few seconds about what is the best approach to open this conversation and I choose from 5 different openings according to what is standing in front of me”, this is called the bounce of 5, when they are dismissed they are ready to bounce to the next response. The first 20 seconds are vital, the next step or question must be ready. This is something that comes from over 20 years of police experience but an important lesson for all of us dealing with disaffected young people; there is no single approach or strategy, we assess the individual and pull from a list of approaches.
Thorlief has been turned down very few times; in 6 years of home visits the number of young men who have not wanted to meet him after his home visit he can count on one hand. Thorlief is able to connect with them because he knows the culture so well, he can reference a relative that he knows and a neighbour he has worked with. Interestingly, Thorlief invites them in for a coffee and a chat rather than a meeting.
When a young man makes it to the police station to see Thorlief, he has number actions that could appear incidental but are by no means accidental. He makes sure he meets them in a stairwell not in the office which could be intimidating, instead he is trying to find a neutral space. Thorlief has asked for an office space that is separate from the rest of the police station to make him more approachable. His first gesture is a handshake to create equality and connection. Then they walk to the kitchen and make the coffee together. This ritual takes pressure off eye contact and intense conversation, they are instead focused on the activity and establishing rapport. When they take their coffee back to the office they don’t sit with the desk between them. So much of what Thorlief describes here directly mirrors interventions that can had with young people, the 5% who need to find us more approachable.
It’s quite incredible to sit with a man who is working with the young men considered to be the most feared, dangerous, disaffected, inaccessible and unreachable. Never once does Thorleif use an expression like ‘we’ve tried everything’, there is no exhaustive list, he is committed. Thorlief casually explains the main thing he has learnt from the last 6 years; ‘it’s all about dialogue and relationship, if you treat people with respect you will get respect’.