ISIS defectors should be allowed to return
Standing by its principles is Britain's best weapon against ISIS.
Last week, The Times published an article claiming that fighters in Syria had contacted researchers from the London-based International Centre for Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, claiming they wished to return to Britain. Around 30 British fighters had reportedly become disillusioned with the brutality and cruelty they had witnessed while fighting for ISIS. Were they to return to the UK, it is likely that they would face prosecution for terror-related offences, but the fighters indicated that they would be willing to be subjected to heavy surveillance and lengthy ‘anti-radicalisation programmes’ as an alternative to lengthy prison sentences.
It is believed that more than 500 British citizens have travelled to fight in Syria since 2011, many of whom are believed to have joined ISIS. The UK government has responded by publicly considering the possibility of removing British passports from anyone found to have gone abroad to fight. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, sought to position himself as ‘tough’ on ISIS by arguing that returning fighters should also be stripped of their British citizenship.
Some have raised doubts about the practical impact of refusing ISIS defectors entry back into the UK. Richard Barrett, a former counter-intelligence chief at MI5, said that the defectors could provide a valuable insight into the way ISIS operates and accordingly they needed to know ‘they had a place back home’. The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, also expressed doubts about the viability of removing passports and citizenship, and was keen to clarify that the government would not consider any action which violated its obligations under international law. It is not difficult to see the force behind the practical objections to the government’s proposals. After all, making these men stateless would provide them with a strong incentive to remain in Syria and fight to the death regardless of the consequences. It would also make them harder to trace were they to start crossing the borders of countries surrounding Syria.
But even putting practical and legal issues aside, there is an arguably more fundamental reason why these men should be allowed to return. The reason Britain can confidently assert moral superiority over the likes of ISIS is that we at least purport to believe in the ability of people to redeem themselves. What separates civilised society from the savage hordes of northern Iraq is that we see individuals as agents of their own fortune. Were we now to rush through new police powers to prevent these men from ever being able to return to Britain, we would merely confirm ISIS’s rhetoric to the effect that Western society is unprincipled and lacking moral standards. It would cement the idea in the minds of these men that Western society lacks the conviction to hold true to its principles.
That is not to say these men should get away scot-free. They should not be able to sideline our system of justice by consenting to constant surveillance or compulsory anti-radicalisation programmes. They should take responsibility for their failings and serve their time if necessary. It is right that they should face up to what they have done, which may mean them having to face lengthy prison sentences. But if we are to stand any chance of winning the war with ISIS in the long term, we will have to begin by confidently asserting the values and principles which make British society a better choice than the rambling prehistoric barbarism extolled by ISIS. That means showing these defectors that, while they may face punishment under English law, they will always be treated as human beings capable of eventual redemption. Failing to assert this most basic of values at a time when more and more young minds are attracted to the nihilistic self-sacrifice of life in ISIS could have consequences far beyond allowing these men to return home.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.