25 October 2017

How to deal with returning ISIS fighters


What do we do about British citizens who join the Islamist death cult, travel to Syria and then try to return to this country?

Jihad in the Levant is a risky business. There aren’t many people in the UK, affected as we have been by the murderous sadism of ISIS, who would argue with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s insistence that Brits who live by the Daesh sword ought to expect no mercy from us in the battlefield. According to the Security Service, about 130 home-grown enemy combatants from this country have met their fate at the wrong end of a British or US missile and we ought to spend little time fretting over their demise.

But what about those hailing from London, Luton and Birmingham who have survived the ignominious collapse of the caliphate? What is the correct response to the possibly hundreds of combat-hardened people now seeking to get back into this country? The current independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Max Hill QC, pondered their fate recently on an interview on Radio 4. His view was that while some fighters must certainly be put through the criminal justice system for crimes committed we ought to apply more flexibility to others not judged a danger. These rather mild observations provoked a Tsunami of criticism on social media. Hill was monstered as a naive fool by many people who clearly had not listened to his sensible, if clunky, comments.

The Government position was made less clear after the intervention of the Africa Minister, Rory Stewart: “The only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.” As we have seen, that position works in the combat zones of Syria and Iraq but would cross some rather inconvenient red lines if applied at Dover.

So we have a problem. Such is the state of border control in the United Kingdom, we must expect that a significant number of returning combatants will get into this country. Entry to the United Kingdom via the almost completely unprotected land border with the Republic of Ireland would, for example, be relatively easy.

There are four practical things to be done to control this threat: identify them, find them, assess their risk and put them through a criminal justice process to decide the best security outcome. This clearly ought to be a multi-agency joined up response which manages individuals from detection to community resettlement.

When I carried out my review of Islamist extremism for Government I was astonished to find that absolutely no thought had been given to forecasting the numbers of returning foreign fighters who might enter custody and how their special risks might be managed when they did.

The expected surge hasn’t happened – yet – but the prison service is barely capable of maintaining order in our high security prisons, let alone accommodate a surge of combat-hardened Islamist terrorists.

Mr Hill’s position is that the security service know the identity of many returning fighters and that they have been subject to an assessment. I’m not sure this is enough to satisfy justifiable public concern.

There ought to be a more formalised reintegration process run jointly with the police, probation and prison service to establish the risks (and the opportunities) presented by individuals. This process could, quite rightly, have several outcomes as Mr Hill suggests. There’s no question that people who have committed atrocities ought to face the full force of the law and serve significant prison sentences if found guilty. There must be no equivocation.

But others will have travelled to Syria and Iraq driven by extreme immaturity or motivated by a misguided sense of adventure, many manipulated and groomed by IS recruiters. Again, these people must face criminal sanction if there is evidence of crimes committed abroad. But history shows that punitive solutions alone won’t always keep us safer. Even those sentenced under terrorism legislation, as they can be, for travelling abroad to fight are likely to receive sentences which mean they will be back on the streets relatively soon.

Understanding their motivations and routes into extremism will help security forces to predict and prevent similar behaviour in the future. Utilising young people, in particular those who show genuine remorse and disillusionment and can share that with their peers, would be a PR coup worth its weight in gold. The truly important thing is that in every case, the actions of people who have betrayed our country have visible, tangible consequences.

The solution to this growing problem isn’t comfortably black and white. I think that’s all Hill was trying to point out. A reintegrated, repentant role model is worth far more to us in terms of our national security than he is locked up, Extremism is a complex and very serious problem and professionals must be allowed the space to think creatively about how to defeat it. Our Islamist enemies are masters of lateral thinking in their desperation to hurt us. We must be similarly agile in response.

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2016