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.