Denmark's Somali Community: Breeding Ground for Extremists?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ernst van Norde / Polfoto / AP

Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard

Denmark's small Somali community, which numbers about 16,000, has struggled for years to integrate more fully into a society that has grown more antagonistic toward immigrants like them. Then came the news that a man with an ax and knife allegedly burst into the home of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard on Jan. 1 and threatened to kill him. Danish Somalis were aghast when authorities said the intruder was one of their own.

"The Somalis in Denmark are shocked at what happened and strongly condemn it. They see it as the work of one man and don't understand how he could do a thing like that — someone who grew up in Denmark," says Abdirashid N. Artan, a social worker and chairman of the Somali Youth & Development Network, an organization that works with troubled young Somalis in Copenhagen, the Danish capital.

But authorities and experts warn that Somali refugees living in Denmark, as well as elsewhere in Scandinavia, are more and more being drawn to radical Islamic groups because of their difficulties in starting a new life in their adopted country and the increasingly xenophobic tone of right-wing politicians, like those from the Danish People's Party.

The Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) says the 28-year-old who allegedly broke into Westergaard's home, identified by Kenyan police as Mohammed Muhideen Gelle, had close links to the Somali militant group al-Shabab, which controls large parts of southern Somalia and has been listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. PET also says he is "suspected of having been involved in terror-related activities" during a recent stay in eastern Africa. Gelle was arrested by police in Kenya last August, prior to a Kenya visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and held for seven weeks on suspicions of having ties to terrorist groups. He was later released because of a lack of evidence and deported to Denmark, where he's lived since he was a teenager.

The incident at Westergaard's home came two months after another young Danish-Somali man detonated a suicide bomb at a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, killing 24 people, including four ministers. According to news reports, the man had spent 20 years in Denmark before returning to Somalia — and may also have been involved with al-Shabab. (The group has denied responsibility for the attack.) But Somalia's Environment Minister, Buri Hamza, told Danish television last month that he believed the man was first drawn to extremists in Denmark. "We're afraid that this Danish-Somali has been brainwashed right here in Denmark," Hamza told the TV2 channel.

The problem doesn't appear to be limited to Denmark, either. In neighboring Sweden, which has a Somali population of about 15,000, authorities say al-Shabab is recruiting Somalis to attend militant training camps in their homeland. Patrik Peter, a spokesman for the Säpo security police force, says about 20 men have left Sweden for Somalia in recent years, "a handful of which were found dead after acts of violence."

According to experts, the conditions in Scandinavia, particularly Denmark, are ripe for this kind of radicalization among Somalis. Artan says many refugee families who have fled the ongoing civil strife in Somalia have untreated traumas that can leave young people susceptible to the influence of outside forces. "It is taboo for Somalis to seek help for psychological problems. It is part of the culture that problems such as depression and mental illnesses do not exist. And it is exactly among families with war traumas that we see their children being drawn to radical groups," he says.

Somali refugees are also among the least integrated minority groups in Denmark, a fact that experts blame on a lack of education and the strident tone of right-wing politicians. According to the Integration Ministry, only 34% of Somali men and 22% of Somali women are employed — a rate far below the average for immigrants in the country. "There are different reasons for this, but one is that there has been civil war in Somalia since 1991, and this has created a situation in which many have a poor education from their homeland," says Nauja Kleist, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies. "But another aspect is the feeling of not being accepted by the rest of Danish society. The harsh tone of the political debate in Denmark has had the consequence that many feel they are not being recognized as equal citizens."

Artan echoes that sentiment, saying that some Somalis feel as if they're being pushed out by the Danish People's Party, which has succeeded in passing several harsh immigration laws in recent years with the help of allies in Parliament. Last fall, a proposal was passed to pay "antisocial" foreigners 100,000 kroner ($19,000) to leave Denmark and give up their residency rights. The group is now discussing whether to try to ban minarets on mosques. "Some [Somalis] who do not have any education can feel rejected and can be too easily tempted by radical groups," Artan says. "These people might be here in Denmark physically, but mentally they have moved back to the homeland."