Shamima Begum has brought to the fore the long simmering issue of returning ISIS fighters and their families. The UK government estimates that approximately 850 people travelled to Syria since 2011 to join ISIS. Of those some have died, some defected and an estimated 400 have already returned home. It is unclear how many British nationals are among those in the refugee camps and detention centres of Syria. Western governments now face a dilemma of what to do with those who return.
Why did they leave to join the so-called Caliphate?
Dr Sarah Marsden, an academic at Lancaster University who specialises in de-radicalisation, says that the reasons people travelled were complex and evolved over time. In the early stages of the civil war some people were motivated by humanitarian reasons and travelled to help fellow muslims who were suffering under the Assad regime. As the conflict developed, some were drawn to the ideology or excitement of joining ISIS.
What does the UK do when they return?
It depends on the individual. In some cases, where a person has dual nationality the UK government has deprived them of their nationality to prevent them returning. This can only be used in certain circumstances. Where possible, the UK government will investigate and prosecute those who have committed terrorism-related offences. However, only one in ten cases of those who have returned have been successfully prosecuted so far. some have been investigated and dropped, others are still going through the criminal justice system.
Where it is not possible to prosecute, in the most serious cases the Home Secretary might agree to the use of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure (TPIM) orders. TPIM measures can include electronic tagging, and reporting regularly to the police. It expires after a maximum of two years unless new evidence emerges of involvement in terrorism. The UK government also works with community groups to help people reintegrate.
British nationals who travelled to Syria: breakdown
What are the challenges?
Prosecuting terrorism-related cases is notoriously difficult. The UK government will have to balance the need to protect the public, the political pressure to see ‘justice’ done and the complexity of reintegrating people back into UK society. Analysts advise that many of the women and children particularly might have experienced trauma and need additional support. One of the other big questions not yet resolved is what to do with the children of those who travelled to Syria and who remain there.
Why is it so hard to prosecute terrorist-related cases?
In many countries traveling to ISIS-held territory is not a crime in itself – although the UK has just passed a law making it illegal – nor is it illegal to marry an ISIS fighter. And while many countries have laws against aiding or abetting terrorist organisations, finding evidence for these crimes can be difficult.
In many cases governments will hold intelligence rather than evidence – which is not admissible in court. “For all kinds of legal reasons, much of what is called ‘battlefield evidence’ in this case would not be admissible in court, either falling short on evidential grounds or because of the manner in which it was obtained. We do not, for example, use intercept evidence in UK courts,” Shiraz Maher, the director of ICSR, wrote in the New Statesman.
How do you de-radicalise someone?
According to the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security threats (CREST), programmes began to be developed in the post 9/11 period.
In the UK, the government runs Prevent – a system which aims to identify vulnerable people and intervene before they become terrorists. Prevent has different strands. The Channel scheme is for individuals who cause serious concern. Last June the government announced it was planning to double investment into the Desistance and Disengagement programme which aims to rehabilitate people already convicted of terror offences or returning from conflict zones.
There are different schools of thought as to the best way of ‘de-radicalising’ someone. Dr Marsden’s research suggests that understanding someone’s underlying motivations and re-directing them positively can work. She argues that trying to unpick ideology can be counterproductive.
If you want to know more, this podcast by the excellent Monocle podcast ‘Foreign Desk’ gives a great insight into the issue and includes an interview with a former member of Al Qaeda.