There are growing reports that British jihadis fighting in Syria want to come home; it has been claimed that dozens are trapped in Syria unable to leave, and up to 100 are stranded in Turkey having made it out of Syria, but worried or unable to come back to the UK.
This should be no surprise.
Many will be scared for their safety; British jihadis are now being killed at a rate of one every three weeks. The latest fatality was reported this weekend; Muhammad Mehdi Hassan from Portsmouth was just 19 years old and had travelled to Syria with a group of friends. Of the six that went, four are now dead, one remains in Syria and one is in prison in the UK.
Others will be disillusioned. The actions of ISIS – including the horrific murder of four western hostages – paint a picture of a group of blood thirsty, evil barbarians. This is undoubtedly true of many, for whom legal redress feels like a wholly inadequate way of achieving justice for their victims.
There will also be a sizeable minority fighting with ISIS who did not sign up for this kind of terror. Some will have gone there originally on humanitarian grounds and been radicalized along the way. Others will have joined the struggle against Assad, but now find themselves fighting fellow Muslims and murdering innocent people, including women and children.
There will even be those who went explicitly to join ISIS but are appalled by the depths of depravity to which the organization sinks.
Given the truly heinous actions of ISIS, it is not surprising that the UK government’s response to the rise of British foreign fighters has been so firm and resolute, looking to ban them from returning to the UK, prosecute those who do come back, and even considering the use of treason laws for the most extreme cases.
While those guilty of crimes must be held accountable, this blanket response misses important opportunities that could strengthen -not weaken – national security.
First, those that return are likely to offer intelligence and insight to improve our understanding of ISIS, a group that has so far out-paced security experts at every turn.
Second, refusing re-entry to scared and disillusioned ISIS members is likely to make enemies of them for life. The testimonies of former violent extremists point to the uncomfortable truth that for many, unexpected acts of kindness from government officials created a chink of doubt that was part of their de-radicalisation process. We should be competing for their loyalty, not leaving them to fall into the hands of yet another set of violent extremist recruiters.
Third, what is more effective in countering ISIS propaganda than a returned foreign fighter who has seen the error of their ways and can speak to the horrors of what ISIS is doing? As the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6 said, “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists,” adding that they can “explain why going abroad to fight is a very bad idea”. The success of networks such as Against Violent Extremism (AVE) underlines this point.
The UK government needs to add two new elements to its policy to tackle foreign fighters and the rise of ISIS.
First, 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.
In support of this effort, it should run an information campaign within Syria to inform British ISIS members of their return options. This does not mean letting criminals off the hook; those guilty of crimes must be prosecuted on their return. But balanced messaging might just convince some to return home to face justice, rather than opt for a life on the run with a terrorist organization.
Second, the government should set up a national EXIT programme, similar to those operating in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The Channel Programme targets individuals in the pre-criminal space, but needs to be complemented by a national programme aimed at those who have been radicalized and recruited and want to leave terrorist or violent extremist movement.
Such a scheme should offer a wider range of services than Channel, such as support for post-traumatic stress disorder, medical treatment for physical injuries sustained on the battlefield, de-radicalisation sessions, as well as help reintegrating into the family and wider community and access to education, employment and training.
It should also offer advice and guidance to the parents of foreign fighters, many of whom remain in contact with their children via phone, email or social media channels. In these exchanges, they become de-facto negotiators, desperately trying to keep lines of communication open and hoping to convince their son or daughter to come home. There is already evidence pointing to the effectiveness of these programmes.
The situation in Syria is heartbreaking on every level; innocent lives lost, tortured or brutalized; the destruction of a once thriving middle income country; the corruption of a faith; young people drawn to ISIS’s perverse ideology; and the knock-on impact of instability across the wider region. And as events last week in Canada remind us, there is also the risk of the threat coming home to the UK.
The government is right to take a firm stand against ISIS and those who fight in its ranks or support from the sidelines. But we need to face facts: we cannot stop British jihadis returning home; we cannot arrest our way out of the problem; and we do not have the resources to mount surveillance operations against all returning foreign fighters.
Instead, we need a more nuanced approach to deal with the different levels of threat. Arrest and prosecute those who have committed a crime and set an example of those guilty of the most heinous offences. Work proactively to bring back those who are scared and disillusioned, so they come back with us and on our terms. Turn the stories of returned foreign fighters into ammunition against ISIS. And offer those capable of reintegration the support they and their families need to get back on their feet and become productive members of society.
Tough measures are reassuring in the face of a threat such as ISIS. But they usually obscure the most promising opportunities to enhance our national security in the long-term.
This article was originally posted on Huffington Post on 27 October 2014.