Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

British Jihadis in Iraq and Syria: How should we deal with them when they come home?

While there is broad consensus that those who pose a threat to national security should be dealt with, many experts argue that not all of the Britons in Syria and Iraq are trained fighters and terrorists

Nick Harding
Friday 03 October 2014 08:44 BST

In the Syrian conflict, the pleas of British parents begging their sons and daughters to come home have become part of the dialogue; a poignant human counterweight to the ranting Isis propaganda.

The voices of Safiya and Mohammed Hussien are the latest in this growing chorus. Their daughter Yusra, 15, is thought to be in Turkey en route to Syria to become a jihadi bride.

“Please come home,” they implored at a press conference this week.

But, if she has been radicalised and has formed an association with Isis, what sort of welcome will Yusra receive if she returns? If the experience of the former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg is an indicator, it will not be a warm one. The campaigner against government anti-terror policy was arrested in February and charged with attending a terrorist training camp in Syria, funding extremists and possessing terrorist-related documents. Two days ago, on the eve of his trial, all charges were dropped after the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to continue. West Midlands Police, which is responsible for the arrest, accepts that he is an innocent man. Begg’s main crime, it appears, was that he was in Syria some time between October 2012 and April 2013. This gave the authorities cause to suspect that the vocal activist was involved in plotting terrorist acts.

As many as 250 British-born Syrian returnees are living in the UK, having previously aligned themselves to the black flag of Isis and been exposed to its extreme Islamist creed. No one seems to know who, or where, they are. Some of them will inevitably be battle-hardened fighters who have carried out barbaric acts. Many could pose a serious threat to national security. Most will be radicalised and living off the radar, worried that, like Begg, they will face criminal charges if they become known to the authorities. As air strikes on Isis targets continue, many more such people will return when the romance of jihadism is dashed by the realities of war.

Pakistani men who worked under Taliban attend a class at the army-run de-radicalisation centre of Mishal School in Barikot tehsil of Swat valley (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images) ((FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images))

While there is broad consensus that those who pose a threat to national security should be dealt with by the justice system and security services, many experts argue that not all of the 500 to 1,000 Britons in Syria and Iraq are trained fighters and terrorists; they don’t all want to destroy the West. Some are there in an administrative and support capacity, some are teenagers and young women like Yusra. Many went there on humanitarian grounds and find themselves trapped in a dangerous conflict. Radicals? Perhaps. But criminals?

Worryingly, the government strategy for dealing with returnees appears generalised, untargeted, fragmented and draconian. The plans of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, for disruption orders and toughened counter-extremist measures to augment other heavy-handed measures in the Conservative manifesto – which may include passport confiscation and criminal prosecution of returnees – will undoubtedly make life difficult for hate preachers and extremist groups. But it is feared that such measures will serve only to send the more moderate returnees, who might otherwise become assets for intelligence services, underground. Even May admits that the issue is not as cut and dried as government rhetoric would suggest. “I also recognise there are some who have humanitarian intent,” she said last weekend.

So what is to be done with those who have lost the taste for jihad and want to come home? For more than a year, several counter-extremism experts have been advising the Government to invest more in deradicalisation programmes. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has also called for a mandatory deradicalisation programme for those on the Isis fringes. Currently, it appears that this advice has been ignored.

Richard Barrett is a former director of global counter-terrorism operations at MI6. He believes that while the Home Office’s counter-terrorism strategy is effective, it needs more focus. “Let’s not fix a policy depending on a few guys in Parliament who don’t know much about the situation. Let’s get hold of people who know about it and give them a bit of room.”

The project, started last year, seeks to help hundreds of children and teens endangered by the Taliban, who ruled Swat before the military drove out the insurgents in 2009 (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images) ((FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images))

To understand deradicalisation, one must first understand how extremists become radicalised. The process is gradual; it predominantly begins offline with personal relationships, though internet forums and websites play a role. There is a radicalisation spectrum: some subscribe to violence; some become extreme out of a sense of brotherhood to their fellow religionists; some are students looking for a sense of identity, adventure and a cause to follow. Without a policy flexible enough to address this range of individual beliefs, those who return could, as a result of their fears and alienation, become more radicalised.

This explains why Barrett believes that it is important to understand the behaviour of Syrian returnees on a case-by-case basis. “Each person who goes there is an individual with a mix of motivations which may overlap but probably don’t coincide,” he says. “Some people may have relationship problems, some may have a feeling that something is missing in their life and want a better sense of purpose and belonging.”

A founding member of the UN Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, Barrett worked at MI6 before and after the 9/11 attacks. He understands the issue with clarity and speaks with measured authority. “One of the attractions of Isis to these people is that they look like a group trying to make the world better as they understand it, promoting a type of religion and the values associated with it,” he tells me. “People attracted to the ideals can almost put the beheadings to one side and convince themselves that [the beheadings] are just a small part of the story.”

Barrett, along with others, believes that rehabilitation programmes offer the best opportunity for officials to deradicalise, monitor and even exploit the returnees on the lower end of the radical spectrum.

The Government already has the tool to do this: a secretive Home Office programme called Channel that sits within the nation’s counter-terrorism strategy, Contest. Barrett commends this programme and explains that other states look to it as best practice. But, he says, in order to deal with the Syrian returnee issue, it needs to be expanded and better resourced.

Channel is a deradicalisation programme that employs a network of mentors, psychologists and community workers to counsel and guide those at risk of developing extremist viewpoints. The programme began two years after the 7/7 bombings in London as a Home Office pilot scheme in two police forces. It expanded in 2008 and 2009 and now operates across England and Wales. It works in a similar way to anti-gang initiatives, by offering assessment, counselling and support to those referred to it. It relies on co-ordinated activity at a local level between bodies such as the police, schools, social services, children’s and youth services, health services, border agencies and offender-management services. Each individual case receives a tailor-made programme. A police representative co-ordinates Channel activity in each area where the programme runs.

Ghaffar Hussain is the managing director of Quilliam, the counter-extremism think-tank, which has links with deradicalisers. “You establish a relationship, develop a connection, explore the issues the person is concerned about and the ideas they are under the influence of,” he explains. “You gently start exploring the ideas while developing the relationship and trust. You start making them doubt some of the dogma that is guiding or dictating their behaviour.”

While some will be too entrenched in extremist beliefs to respond, others find that the actual experience of jihad changes their opinions. These are the ones that Hussain says benefit from deradicalisation. “Those who pose a serious threat and are prepared to blow themselves up are not conducive to a conversation,” he clarifies. “However, often people go to conflict zones with one set of expectations and come back realising it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You can take advantage of that and of their negative experiences.”

It is feared the publicity surrounding the video has already had an effect on other potential British Jihadi recruits

Those presented to Channel are assessed to ascertain how open they are to discussions about their situation and beliefs, and how far down the route of radicalisation they have progressed. In its present form, Channel steered hundreds of young people away from fundamentalism. Between April 2007 and March this year, 3,934 people were referred to the programme. Of those, 777 went through it. Not all were Islamists. Some held extreme far-right views. Some were schoolchildren – 1,450 were under 18.

However, Channel is seen as woefully under-resourced to deal with the scale of the Syrian returnee problem, and the Home Office has given no indication that the programme will form part of a strategy to cope with the issue. There are fears that the Government is wasting an opportunity.

Professor Peter Neumann, the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) based at King’s College London, has been calling for a revamp of Channel for the past year. Several months ago, he was approached by an individual claiming to represent 30 disillusioned British citizens who had travelled to Syria to join Isis and wished to return, but feared that they would face jail. The conversation took place over the internet after the group contacted the ICSR.

“If your only tool is the law, you are creating a very expensive process and a risk that a fair number will never be convicted,” Neumann says. “Sources within the Home Office have told us that, in many cases, it will be difficult to get convictions. We’ve already seen people being acquitted. There are lots of different people in Syria and Iraq with different motivations. Some are definitely dangerous, hard-core ideologues. But there are also people who are disillusioned, who have doubts and regret getting involved and want to go back to a normal life.

Mohammed Nahin Ahmed (left) and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, both 22, who have admitted preparing to carry out terrorist acts after they travelled to Syria to join rebel fighters (West Midlands Police)

“We are not proposing an amnesty. There should be a very tough assessment. If they pose a danger they should be prosecuted but if they have not committed a crime, went over on a humanitarian [convoy] and now deeply regret it, then they should be given the option of rehabilitation and some transition back into normal life.”

Neumann is concerned that the hundreds of returnees already in the UK have slipped through the net. “What’s happened to them?” he asks. “The Home Office has confessed that it does not know the names of every single person who has returned, otherwise we would have a lot of prosecutions right now.”

He believes that a revamped Channel programme would allow the security services to monitor and assess returnees more effectively. “If this is, as David Cameron says, the biggest threat to Britain since 7/7 then there should be a sense of urgency in the Home Office to restructure Channel. All the resources in terms of mentors, theology and psychology are in place; you just have to reorganise it.”

Several other nations run programmes similar to Channel. In Pakistan, children recruited by the Taliban to be suicide bombers are rehabilitated. In Indonesia, the police force deradicalised extremists and helped them with employment. Another programme in Yemen was set up to reintegrate mujahideen fighters returning from Afghanistan back into society. They were given help in finding jobs and even wives, which caused a public backlash. The fear of similar knee-jerk reactions in the UK could lie behind the Government’s reluctance over Channel. If expanded, it will inevitably be criticised for providing a soft option and easy way out for people involved with a sworn enemy of the UK.

Screengrab taken from YouTube of a video showing Islamist fighters, who claim to be British, appearing in a recruitment video for the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) (YouTube)

As Barrett explains, “Politicians find it difficult to sell such schemes to the public. It’s much easier to say, ‘String them up.’” He believes that Channel should be a starting point and that state involvement needs to extend beyond mentoring. “You can talk to returnees about the religious foundations of Islam and how the Isis ideology is a distortion of that, but what happens afterwards? It is not just a case of saying, ‘What you are doing is wrong and this is why,’ but also of saying, ‘Why not do this [instead]? Here is a future path,’ and for that you need psychologists, support workers, vocational trainers; you need to understand about the community the person has come from and where they are going back to live,” he explains.

“There has to be some sort of monitoring and discussion with them and that shouldn’t be across a table in a dark room. I don’t say that from a socks-and-sandals liberal attitude, I say that from a practical point of view; don’t create problems you haven’t got. I know what works and what doesn’t. I have seen enough to know that you are often looking at an opportunity when you think you are looking at a challenge. These guys should be seen as a resource.”

Former extremists such as Maajid Nawaz and Shiraz Maher have gone on to become important and respected voices in the counter-extremism movement. And although in its present form Channel is not a process for gathering intelligence, it could potentially turn returnees into assets. “If you can get them when they are fed up with Isis and allow them to join the Channel programme, perhaps they can help bring others back and start being useful and having influence,” Barrett says.

It sounds sensible but when the common rhetoric is about draconian crackdowns, the idea of moderate, well-thought-out, targeted deradicalisation seems to be the most radical option of all.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in