UK government to discuss blacklisting Afghanistan and ‘jailing people who visit country’

Ministers are reportedly concerned about radicalised westerners travelling to join terror cells

Sam Hancock
Tuesday 24 August 2021 14:44
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Afghan evacuees arrive at RAF Brize Norton base in Oxfordshire

The government is said to be considering plans to make it a criminal offence for UK residents to travel to Afghanistan, which, if defied, could see offenders jailed for up to 10 years.

It was not immediately clear if all or just some of the south-central Asian nation would be blacklisted under the proposal, according to reports first published in The Telegraph. Ministers are due to discuss how it could legitimately work later this week.

“We’re looking at every option available at this stage about how we proceed in the future. This is one of the options”, the newspaper quoted a source as saying.

However, the source stressed ministers were currently preoccupied with the evacuation effort to get UK nationals and eligible Afghans out of the country as fast as possible.

The drastic measure is thought to be a result of the longer-term threats presented by the Taliban takeover, particularly mounting fears that an influx of radicalised western recruits could travel to Afghanistan to join existing or incoming terror cells in the country.

Reports over the past few weeks have raised concerns that Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State Khorasan – also known as Isis-K – could gain momentum in the fragile country now it is in the hands of the Taliban, an Islamist militant group.

In 2019, the government created new “designated area offence” powers which allow the home secretary to ban British nationals from travelling to, or remaining in, specified terror hotspots.

The legislation – part of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 – was introduced in the wake of the collapse of the Isis caliphate, which saw suspected British jihadists and jihadi brides return to the UK from Syria and Iraq.

Certain loopholes exist, though, for people who can prove they have a legitimate reason to be in a blacklisted area, such as humanitarian work and journalism.

One foreign policy think tank told The Telegraph on Monday night that it welcomed the idea of Britain including Afghanistan on its blacklist.

Sam Armstrong, the director of communications at the Henry Jackson Society, warned the government has been left “completely unprepared for the Taliban’s victory” in a range of areas, including asylum and counter-terrorism.

“With glaring loopholes in counter-terrorism laws and clear support for the Taliban from UK extremists, banning travel to the region has become vitally important for national security,” he said.

In former US president Donald Trump’s 2020 deal, which ensured the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged to ensure terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and Isis were not able to use Afghan territory to train and plot foreign attacks.

But, as The Independent revealed last week, there are already concerns that the agreement may not be honoured, or that the Taliban may lose control of parts of the country to its rivals.

A widely-circulated UN Security Council report, dated 1 June this year, came to the conclusion that the militant group and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”.

Elsewhere in the document, which covers developments in Afghanistan between May 2020 and April 2021, UN member states are quoted as saying that the relationship between the two groups has “grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties”.

The Taliban previously refuted these claims.

A spokesperson said Downing Street had nothing to add when approached for comment.

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