Can Denmark solve its Islamic extremist problem?

Denmark, like other European nations, is struggling to stop its citizens from joining the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations in Syria. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Copenhagen on the story of a young man who left his home country to fight for the militant group, and how his mother is urging the government to do more to stem the tide of extremism.

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    Finally tonight: combating extremism in Europe.

    Denmark is often referred to as the happiest place on earth, but its sense of peace and serenity was shell-shocked earlier this year when an Islamic extremist shot and killed two people in Copenhagen. The country, like other European nations, is struggling to stop its citizens from joining the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

    NewsHour special correspondent Malcolm Brabant caught up with one devastated mother who is urging the government to do more to stop the tide of extremism.

    Right now, I'm just looking for more videos to see if I can get any knowledge about my boy.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT, Special Correspondent:

    Karolina Dam's worst fear came true in the cruelest way. An Islamic State death notice on Facebook alerted her to news that her eighteen-year-old son, Lukas, had been killed in an American airstrike on the Syria-Turkey border.

    KAROLINA DAM, Mother of Lukas Dam: I need peace and quiet now. I need to get on. I need — I don't want him dead. But I need — I need to know things. And I don't know if he's alive. I don't know if he's in jail or if ISIS has killed him. I don't know anything. It's hard. You can't sleep. I wake up with nightmares everywhere.


    But you don't believe he's alive, do you?




    How strong was the evidence that he was killed?


    There's no evidence.


    Lukas had attention-deficit disorder, and, according to his mother, suffered from relatively serious autism.

    After dabbling in petty crime, he was put in a home for vulnerable teenagers. He became a Muslim a year after this video was taken.


    I don't want to classify my son as a terrorist, because he's not. My boy is the victim in all this. He has been manipulated. He has been abused and pushed into this fight that he and others have won.


    Lukas fell under the spell of hard-line groups like Hizb ut Tahrir, an international party that campaigns for Sharia law and a worldwide caliphate.

  • MAN:

    So, first of all, I would like to tell the enemy to look very closely at this flag, at the black flag, not the white flag, but the black flag, because this is the black flag that the U.S. will see. This is the black flag that the U.S. will see coming over the horizon. This is the black flag they will see coming across the Atlantic in front of an army that loves the prophet, that loves Islam.


    Mrs. Dam said she did everything in her power to prevent her son from traveling to Syria. She took away his passport and alerted his social workers.


    It's not the easiest task for a parent to keep on calling the authorities. But it is the right thing. The wrong thing is them not doing anything about it.


    Mrs. Dam went to Copenhagen's city hall to try to get some answers from one of the deputy mayors. No officials were prepared to talk on camera.

    Mrs. Dam had received an apology from city hall for the failings of the system. Official admitted that social workers should have alerted Copenhagen's de-radicalization program to fact that Lukas Dam was in danger of going to Syria, so that he could have been stopped at the airport. But the program wasn't informed until four months after Lukas left the country.

    Sources within city hall tried to shift the blame on to Denmark's intelligence agency, claiming it was twice tipped off about the Lukas Dam case. The agency has refused to comment.

    But Professor Magnus Ranstorp was willing to discuss the issue. He heads the Copenhagen Anti-Radicalization Task Force, which is due to deliver an action plan in August.

    MAGNUS RANSTORP, Head of Copenhagen deradicalization task force: We were looking at, how can we improve the system? How can we involve civil society more? How can we can we involve parents as well? So we are looking over the system to see how we can — how we can be more efficient.


    This is a recruiting video for the so-called Islamic State, and the key figure is the 21-year Dane to the right of the picture. Like Lukas Dam, he was a Christian convert with learning difficulties named Victor Kristensen.

    After appealing to his Danish brothers and sisters to join jihad, Victor blew himself up in a suicide attack. He was radicalized at this mosque.

    As part of the nationwide effort to neutralize extreme Islamic rhetoric, this Muslim lawmaker, Fatma Oktem, wants to ban certain radical preachers.

  • FATMA OKTEM, Denmark Parliament Member:

    We know that the young people are visiting the mosques and they are listening to the religious leaders. So it's very important that people who are talking about religion can talk about peace and harmony and integration, not about hate.


    Lawmakers are deeply concerned about the rising influence of groups like Hizb ut Tahrir and are disappointed that Danish prosecutors have just ruled that it can't be outlawed, as it is in countries like Germany and Russia.

    SOREN ESPERSEN, Foreign Affairs spokesman, Danish People's Party: We ought to make sure that Hizb ut Tahrir is forbidden in this country, as they are in many other countries. And I think that the various ministers of justice have failed, because, in our relation, in our constitution, it says that those kind of groups that work for violence and in a way push for violence should be closed.


    Hizb ut Tahrir insists it is not breaking any laws, and attributes its rising popularity amongst young Muslims to what it describes as Denmark's anti-Islamic policies.

    ELIAS LAMRABET, Spokesman, Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic party: It's a clear sign of intellectual bankruptcy in the Danish Parliament, because they cannot withstand thoughts with thoughts. They cannot counter arguments with argument. This is really what we are used to in dictatorships and the like.


    Denmark has changed dramatically since the Valentine's Day shootings that killed filmmaker Finn Norgaard at a free speech forum and security guard Dan Uzan at Copenhagen's synagogue.

    There is a sense the country has lost its innocence. Before the attacks, security used to be very discreet. Now the police are overstretched on full alert in case of a new atrocity. These officers were deployed to protect a Jewish deli close to a mainly Muslim district after it was vandalized.

    The Valentine's Day shooter, Omar El-Hussein, killed by police in a brief exchange of fire, was a hero for a significant number of Muslims. The government here is investing tens of millions of dollars in various de-radicalization programs to try to dampen enthusiasm for extreme Islam displayed at his funeral.

    If they return to Western Denmark and the police fail to find evidence that they committed crimes in the Middle East, they will be offered a place on a rehabilitation program.

  • JORGEN ILUM, Commissioner, East Jutland Police:

    We don't roll out the red carpet. But we are there to try to help them reintegrate into the society, because we believe that is the most secure thing we can do in order to protect society from these young people becoming even more radicalized.


    One person with an insight into the minds of the jihadis is Morten Storm, a former Islamic radical who claims to have worked as a double agent for the CIA and helped them target al-Qaida leaders in Yemen.

  • MORTEN STORM, Former Islamic Extremist:

    I think the authorities have been naive. At the same time, I think it's a disgrace. I think that they are underestimating the ideology and the motivation of these people.


    After her city hall meeting, Karolina Dam talked to one of the officials involved in Copenhagen's de-radicalization program. She curses the Islamic extremists who brainwashed her son and hopes that others can be saved.


    I can't do anything about it now. I can do whatever I can to help them prevent it happening again. And that would be in the spirit of my son. That's what I need to do.


    In the meantime, Mrs. Dam has little alternative but to continue her lonely search among the Islamic State videos online, despite ISIS' announcement that Lukas was killed.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.