When jihadi fighters return

Positive News

David Cameron has imposed strict blanket measures on the growing number of British jihadis that want to return to the UK, but is this the most effective way of dealing with a potentially dangerous problem?

In November David Cameron announced plans to introduce Special Exclusion Orders that would bar suspected foreign fighters from returning to the UK unless they agreed to strict controls. Addressing the Australian parliament in Canberra, he said those who complied would agree to be escorted by the police before facing either prosecution or close supervision.

Half of the 500 Britons thought to have gone to Syria have already returned to the UK, and there are growing reports that British jihadis fighting in Syria want to come home – it is thought that dozens are trapped in Syria and up to 100 are stranded in Turkey.

Many will be scared for their safety: British jihadis are dying at a rate of one every three weeks. Others will be disillusioned: the Isis strategy has become so barbaric that even Al-Qaida off-shoots seek to distance themselves from it.

“Refusing re-entry to scared and disillusioned Isis members is likely to make enemies of them for life”

There will be a sizeable minority who did not sign up for this kind of terror. They might have gone on humanitarian grounds and been radicalised along the way, or joined the struggle against Assad, but now find themselves fighting fellow Muslims and harming innocent women and children.

Given the truly heinous actions of Isis, it is not surprising that Cameron is taking such a firm stance. Indeed, for those committing the worst atrocities, even these measures feel like a wholly inadequate way of achieving justice for the victims.

But while those guilty of crimes must be held accountable, this blanket response misses important opportunities that could strengthen national security.

First, returnees could offer intelligence and insight to improve our understanding of Isis.

Second, refusing re-entry to scared and disillusioned Isis members is likely to make enemies of them for life. We should compete for their loyalty, not let them fall into the hands of another set of recruiters.

Third, those that renounce their actions offer the most effective counternarrative to Isis.

As such, the UK government needs to add two new elements to its foreign fighter policy.

Firstly, it should establish a clearing house near the Syrian border in Turkey to process and return home scared and disillusioned British jihadis. Most will be trapped, having had their passports, mobile phones and credit cards confiscated by Isis. This should be accompanied by an information campaign within Syria. This is not about letting people off the hook, but balanced messaging might convince some to return to face justice, rather than choose life on the run.

Secondly, it should set up a national EXIT programme, similar to those operating in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, potentially building on the Channel Programme that targets individuals in the pre-criminal space.

It should offer additional services, such as medical treatment for injuries, de-radicalisation sessions, help to reintegrate into work and society, and assistance for psychological trauma that might otherwise leave individuals vulnerable to relapse. It should also offer advice and guidance to the parents of foreign fighters, something that has improved the effectiveness of such programmes elsewhere.

The situation in Syria is desperate, and the risk posed by returning foreign fighters is very real. The government is therefore right to take a strong stance, but a blanket approach will not work. Our borders are difficult to manage, we cannot arrest our way out of the problem, and we do not have the resources to monitor everyone who returns.

Instead, we need a multi-layered approach. Arrest and prosecute those who have committed a crime. Bring back those who want to return, but on our terms. Use these individuals to push back on Isis propaganda. And offer those capable of reintegration the support they and their families need.

Photo title: Rachel Briggs

  • King Kong

    Why is this opinion piece, about our national enemies and burgeoning fifth column, on a website about “positive news”? I didn’t visit “positivenew.org.uk” to read stuff like this. Either change your name or your content.

  • alun

    On the contrary, I think this article is a positive and considered piece about an important issue that is currently being dealt with far too simplistically.

  • Peaceful Pacifist

    Thanks for your considered piece but I feel your missing a major area for concern; we can only change what is ahead of us in life and I believe these measures will serve their purpose of deterrent. Put yourself for just one moment in an undecided jihadi’s shoes… He may well reconsider his decision to go knowing that he definitely won’t be allowed re-entry. In this case we should be thoroughly shut the door after the horse has bolted. And maybe even go as far as sending a few chosen armchair jihadi’s to join them. Leave the intelligence gathering to those too honourable to ever be “turned” and wake-up and realise that what you are suggesting will be seen as a free pass to possible “sleeper” jihadis. My opinion is certainly not educated just a gut feeling laced with common sense.

  • John Baker

    Some interesting ideas and definitely better than what we have at the moment. In case anyone is uncertain on that point it is worth examining the attitudes of government departments etc that see it as their duty. Two, rarely commented issues are noteworthy, firstly the appeal of islamophoebia to those politicians peddling the fear agenda, secondly the tendency of MI5 to find an opportunity for recruiting double agents, as appears to have happened int he case of at least one of those charged with killing Lee Rigby. Until these counterproductive tactics are exposed and binned progress is not likely to be swift.

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  • Jo

    There’s plenty of counter commentary out there. This adds nothing new to it and its not “positive” to speak of letting grotesque people back into Britain. That’s what the Guardian does. Positive news would be seeing – for example – Muslims addressing this Muslim issue so the rest of us don’t have to put with it so much.

  • Jo

    I don’t care if one of these people was naive and wants to come back. Too late. They cross the line and become an enemy by making us an enemy. What these Isis creatures are doing, and the Islamic message they represent, is easily understandable. I would suggest the opposite – that the mosque, friends and family of every one of them should additionally be watched by MI5. That would be sensible intelligence.

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