The Nordic region may be the happiest place on Earth. Of the 10 top-ranked countries in the World Happiness Report, half are Nordic nations. Norway, Sweden, and Denmark rank third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in The Economist's "Where to be born index," with Finland not far behind.
But beneath the picture of bliss lurks a malicious and difficult societal problem: An alarming number of Nordic citizens are involved with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. Many have traveled to the Middle East to fight for the terrorist group. Others commit their violence at home.
This February, a Danish terrorist of Palestinian ethnicity killed two and injured five in twin attacks against a cafe and a synagogue in Copenhagen. Though he never set foot in Iraq or Syria, the attacker, who was killed in the act, had sworn allegiance to ISIS in an online post.
Denmark has given us Legos, the Little Mermaid, physicist Neils Bohr, and actress Scarlett Johansson. (A Danish father counts!)Yet among Western European nations, it also has one of the highest per capita rates of citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Danish security services estimate that 115 Danes have gone there to wage jihad, and they caution the number may be higher.
Nor are the other Nordic nations immune: 300 Swedes, 70 Norwegians, and 60 Finns are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to wage jihad. For countries with small populations, these are big numbers. How can some of the supposedly happiest places on Earth bring forth such a disproportionate amount of people willing to join one of the most abjectly evil groups on earth?
Failure to assimilate
The Nordic countries have undergone significant demographic changes and have struggled to assimilate new immigrants. Sweden in particular has taken in large numbers of refugees from the Middle East -including 65,000 refugees from Syria since 2011, second in Europe only to Germany. Many of the refugees are unaccompanied minors; Sweden is the most popular European nation for unaccompanied minors, taking in over 7,000 unaccompanied children in 2014.
Sweden has also taken in a large number of Somali and Iraqi refugees over the last two decades. Scattered among the refugees from Iraq were members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS - individuals who spread vitriol inside Sweden.
Among many immigrant communities, unemployment is rampant. By some estimates, more than half of all foreign-born residents in Sweden who aren't from a culturally similar nation are unemployed. Employment is by no means the silver bullet to counter radicalization (contrary to what the Obama Administration believes), but it certainly doesn't hurt.
A lack of public spending is certainly not to blame. Finland spends a higher percentage of gross domestic product on public social expenditures than any other country except France. Denmark (fourth), Sweden (seventh), and Norway (17th) are also lavish social spenders. Their generosity in this regard far exceeds that of the United States (24th). Norway, for example, spends $125,000 per refugee thanks to the generous government benefits available to that person.
The story is largely one of failed assimilation. Some Swedish cities such as Sodertalje are now more than 50 percent foreign-born. The failure of Swedish assimilation policies went on full display in 2013, when riots in the heavily immigrant Husby district of Stockholm filled TV screens across the globe.
Radicalization often happens on a very local, personal level. Certain towns or even neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of foreign fighters leaving for the Middle East, usually the result of a single person whom other young residents revere and follow overseas. Aarhus in Denmark, Angered in Sweden, and Oslofjord in Norway have particularly acute problems with radicalization.
Nordic nations have some of the highest internet penetration rates in the world, at more than 90 percent each. This connectivity perversely assists radical recruiters. Indeed, social connectedness appears to be a key factor feeding radicalization in the Nordic region. A study by the Swedish Security Services found that at least 80 percent of radicalized Swedes studied were socially interconnected.
The scourge of Islamic radicalism in Nordic countries is spurring a debate in those nations about multiculturalism - a debate that has produced a flurry of policy proposals to stem the tide of fighters leaving for the Middle East.
Some of these measures are punitive. Denmark enacted a law this year under which Danish citizens suspected of planning to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS can have their passports confiscated and a travel ban put in place. Denmark has also tightened asylum laws, instituting a temporary residence permit for asylum seekers from countries embroiled in civil war.
However, the region's interconnectedness means that new measures to curb asylum seekers may not be wholly effective. For instance, "citizenship agreements between Nordic nations allow refugees who obtain Swedish citizenship to move to Denmark without a Danish resident permit." Furthermore, the Nordic nations are all part of the Schengen Area, which has made it easier for would-be terrorists to enter and exit Europe through countries such as Bulgaria with more porous borders.
The inability to stop would-be foreign fighters from leaving the country is especially a problem in Finland, where traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS is not in itself a crime, although terrorist acts themselves are criminalized.
Norway has also clamped down on asylum seekers from war-torn nations, deporting more than 7,000 people in 2014. In 2013, Norway passed a statute that criminalized preparatory acts of terrorism, such as training for terrorism or helping to recruit for a terrorist organization, closing a legal gap.
Sweden has proposed legislation that would put in place passport restrictions against Swedes looking to fight alongside ISIS, although it has not yet become law.
Immigration in itself is not the problem. A fair amount of homegrown terrorists are ethnically Swedish or Norwegian or Danish. Furthermore, most newcomers to the Nordic countries are peaceful, contributing citizens.
A new way?
Interestingly, Denmark is moving forward on a program to rehabilitate Islamists. The so called Aarhus model (named after the Danish city) includes, in part, mentoring for at-risk persons, a hotline for concerned parents, and a national center to assist Danes looking to leave an "extremist environment." The program seeks to establish a dialogue with the communities seen as being at the highest risk for radicalization. It employs field workers in conjunction with influential members of the community to identify and intervene with people thought to be showing warning signs for radicalization.
Whether this model will find success, it's too early to say. But we should wish the Danes and the rest of the region success in their struggle against Islamic extremism.
The numbers out the Nordics are a reminder that while societal preconditions may at times make a person more likely to become radicalized, the fight is inherently an ideological one that must be won on ideological grounds. The fact that Islamic extremism has grown steadily in countries with some of the highest quality of life and the most generous social spending is proof of this reality.
- Daniel Kochis is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Originally appeared in Real Clear World