Helping returning jihadists with 'good intentions' is dangerous, but could just work

There are no good options, but a 'soft approach' is the best of a bad bunch

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The Independent Online

I didn’t know whether to laugh or quail at news that jihadi fighters returning from Syria and Iraq are to be treated “softly” by the Home Office, so long as they show “good intentions”. At first glance it seems a remarkably naïve thing for William Hague to say.

What kind of test, one wonders, are they to use? Is it as simple as a queue at passport control? “Those of you who have had a proper think and are quite sorry, please come this way. The rest – tsk! – there’s a form to fill out. We trust you to be particularly honest on the ‘What landmark would you most like to blow up?’ question, and as a courtesy please complete the date and time of any attack, too”.

Whichever seismograph the intelligence services plan to measure “good intentions” with (and I assume it resembles a Scientologist E-meter), it is quite the change of tack. Just a few months ago politicians had it in mind to tear up the passport of any British citizen who ventured to Syria or Iraq; now it seems returning fighters are to be offered a cup of decaf and  sat down in front of Chicken Run. Had Hague suggested a “soft approach” in the days after any one of Isis’ beheadings, he would have been kicked, quite justifiably, from the red tops (“Yorkshire Dripper to let off British terrorists”) all the way down Fleet Street and deposited somewhere in the Thames.

The problem is, there are no good options here, and, absurd as it may seem, the “soft approach” is probably the best of a dud lot. The risks must be faced square on.

It is not only Jihadi John who will have carried out acts of unspeakable butchery while, in some far off part of the brain, knowing his way around the Circle line. But the attempt to reintegrate some of the men who land on Heathrow’s tarmac is not the same as waving the lot through. Even if Westminster did pass the kind of authoritarian laws needed to indiscriminately hold and punish all fighters – as was suggested by Theresa May – the UK would remain in the crosshairs of extremists: the latest Islamist plot, allegedly foiled last week, appears to have been another – to use that phrase until lately reserved for overpriced vegetables – “homegrown”.


The case for reintegration, then, rests on two points. First, even within the barbaric hodgepodge of Isis, there will be a scale of evildoing, and some young men will fall towards the maddeningly idiotic end of it, not the irredeemable. Twenty-year-old Muhammad Hassan might have been one such. Hassan is the man from Portsmouth who was reported to have been profoundly disillusioned with jihadi life and told his parents via Skype, before he was killed on the frontlines, “You can see how I’m trapped. I have to stick with them [Isis] for my safety… If I go out of the boundaries, I’m in deep trouble.”

Second, what do you think would have the more influence on a young man with a mind to join Isis: a full volume chorus of Westminster disapproval, or the voice of one returned fighter that whispered, “Trust me, it is hell”...