Hundreds of young Britons who went to battle Syria's oppressive regime alongside rebel groups on the wings of the Arab Spring are now running for their lives from IS.
Yet they find themselves between a rock and a hard place with pending UK laws that bar them from returning to Britain for two years and would have them put on trial and imprisoned for terrorism if they return.
At the Frontline Club January 14, Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ISCR) at King’s College; Moazzam Begg a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner turned activist with the UK group Cage; and former MI6 director of global counter-terrorism Richard Barrett, now a senior VP with strategic security intelligence consultants The Soufan Group; discussed how an understanding of returning fighters motivations should inform the government’s response in both new laws and de-radicalization programs.
What motivates foreign fighters?
The reasons why more than 500 foreign fighters have travelled from the UK to fight in Syria are as numerous as the numbers who have gone. But there are similar threads running through individual narratives that should inform the government’s response, saidMaher.
“Timeline and chronology is very important in the Syrian context,” he said. “This is a conflict that has changed and morphed continuously throughout the years since it’s inception. We’ve seen an evolution of the individuals, of the groups operating on the ground, their motivations and aims.”
The current media narrative driven by Home Secretary Theresa May says that ‘if you go to Syria, you’re automatically deemed to be a terrorist,’ Maher argued.
“I have first-hand experience talking to fighters who said that very thing, that the reasons they came for have now changed; they’re no longer present, and they want to come back,” he said. “They are choosing to opt-out of this conflict because it’s not what they thought it was going to be, because they’ve been disillusioned by what they’ve seen there, because of the infighting that’s taken hold and started about this time last year. Obviously some people might wish to return to Britain who want to carry out attacks. They need to be detected and stopped.”
New UK Counter-Terrorism and Security bill promises crackdown on foreign fighters
If there are legitimate threats among returning foreign fighters, why shouldn’t the government get tough with news laws that strengthen existing antiterrorism legislation?
The law enforcement agencies need very clear legislation under which to operate. “You don’t want too much ambiguity,” saidBarrett. “I’ve been through the bill, and someone can be ‘suspected of intending’, so you’ve got a double ambiguity there. And when you have prosecutors asking judges to allow them to have a secret trial because the evidence they want to produce is very sensitive, I think you’re bordering on very, very difficult territory.” He argued, “it’s close to somebody making a decision on what an individual is thinking in order to bring a prosecution, and being able to do so without the public being able to look at it.”
Britain currently has more anti-terrorism legislation than at the height of the threat of the IRA when 3,000 people were killed in Britain, said Begg, “and we’re asking for more legislation?” The proposed legislation is the like of which “we’ve never seen in the UK,” he argued. “It wouldn’t just be the royal prerogative,” Begg said, “which is what has been used on people like me in the past to remove our passports, but the police can do it on a whim. It doesn’t sound like the Britain I have known. It sounds like something out of Eastern Europe during the height of the Cold War.”
Do de-radicalisation programs work?
There are about 20 countries throughout the world running de-radicalisation programs for returning fighters, including the UK. Many adopt very different approaches with varying degrees of success.
“The people who are going to be radicalised are the people who are young, people who are vulnerable, and people who are ideologically or sympathetically attached to what’s happening there,” said Begg, adding that getting people who have travelled to, and fought in, Syria to talk to returnees is a good step.
Disengagement is possible, Barrett added. “I agree with Moazzam that you need very credible people to say ‘look, you can believe that, you can want that, that can be your objective, but you’re not going to get it by fighting with the Islamic State.’” That doesn’t mean they will necessarily be convinced, he pointed out, yet “recidivism rates from rehabilitation programs generally are not particularly high.”
The psychological effects that many returning fighters experience also needs to be taken into account, said Maher. “They’re suffering from combat stress, PTSD, that sort of thing… prosecution is completely the wrong way to go. They need to be dealt with by mental health services, by NHS professionals who are going to help them reintegrate back into a normal life because of the experiences that they’ve had.” The government, he said, “need to be far more pragmatic and with a broad understanding of the issue of returnees.”
A version of this post originally appeared at The Frontline Club.