We cannot destroy Isis, so we will have to learn to live with it

The PM should look beyond immediate security concerns to understand their appeal

Richard Barrett
Monday 22 June 2015 09:56 BST

David Cameron was right to point out, during a speech in Slovakia on Friday, the responsibility that families and communities have to detect and counter the radicalisation of young people by the so-called Islamic State (Isis).

But this is the same responsibility that they have to deter their younger members from joining anti-social gangs or falling into the clutches of cults that offer similar attractions of identity and belonging. The Government also has to do what it can to make it less likely that this will happen. The Prime Minister described Isis as “one of the biggest threats the world has ever faced”, which, although an exaggeration, reinforces the need for all sectors of society to counter its influence.

One problem with the Government’s response to date has been its over-emphasis on the security aspects of its policy, such as legislation to prevent the departure of potential Isis recruits, or the denial of their right to return. The basis for this legislation is an assumption that anyone who goes to join an extremist group active against Bashar al-Assad or the Iraqi government is by definition a domestic terrorist in waiting. This is obviously not the case. There is so far no public evidence that Isis has dispatched someone to commit a terrorist attack in a Western country, although it has encouraged supporters who cannot travel to Syria to do what they can at home. This may change in time, but for now the focus of direct Isis activity remains a regional one.

There is little to suggest that Talha Asmal, for example, would have returned to Dewsbury or elsewhere in the UK to kill his fellow citizens, had he not blown himself up in Iraq as part of the Isis campaign to retake Baiji. The same lack of intent is likely with the Dawood sisters from Bradford. Their decision to take their nine children off to Syria to join their brother is a tragedy for their families – and especially for their children – but it is unlikely that they did so with a plan to train as terrorists. They seem to have wanted to emigrate.

As far as the UK is concerned, addressing the motivational factors that cause these apparently normal and well-adjusted men and women to take a one-way ticket to the “caliphate” is more a social policy challenge than a security policy one.

But while addressing the push factors that may exist in Dewsbury or Bradford, the Government also has to address the pull factors of Isis, and the conditions that have allowed it to emerge. This too is not a security policy challenge; it is more a foreign policy one.

The situation is enormously complex, and there is little that the UK can do on its own, but we should not give Isis recruits the weak excuse that they have gone to Syria because the Western powers are doing nothing to protect the Syrian people from Assad. It takes very little research to learn that the mass of the Syrian people do not want the help of foreign fighters, especially if they join Isis, but it is equally clear that they do need international help to bring the fighting to an end.

Leaving aside the desperate humanitarian consequences, the longer the rearrangement of Syria and Iraq drags on, the more likely it is that Isis will become the threat that Mr Cameron described on Friday.

Iraq and Syria will not return to how they were, and whatever it ends up calling itself, a new entity has emerged that will remain in some form. Currently that entity is aggressive, intolerant, despotic and uncompromising, but it is a terrible truth that for all its dystopian features, Isis offers those living under its rule better governance in some respects than they received from the state before it took over. Corruption is far less prevalent, and justice, albeit brutal, is swift and more evenly applied. The policy challenge is therefore not to seek the destruction of the caliphate so much as to promote its transformation into something that the Syrian and Iraqi people, along with the rest of us, could live with.

Isis projects a strong identity and sense of purpose and it appeals in particular to people who lack both; it offers them the opportunity to be part of something new, regardless of their gender or abilities. It is a sad comment on our own society that a limited but significant number of young people – and most recruits to Isis are in their late teens to late twenties – cannot readily identify a better outlet for their energies and aspirations at home.

Mr Cameron asked on Friday how people arrive at a world view that endorses the ideology of Isis, but this should not be a rhetorical question that absolves the Government of its responsibility to find an answer. There are now hundreds of returnees who could help to provide this, and a smart policy might see them as a potential resource rather than solely as a threat.

This requires leadership; yes, from families and communities but also from the Government across all areas of policy.

Richard Barrett was head of counter-terrorism at MI6 before spending nine years as the co-ordinator of the UN’s Al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team. He is currently a senior vice-president at the Soufan Group, a New York security consultancy

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