York Student Think Tank: How Should Britain Respond to Returning Foreign Fighters?

Image: Nick Richards

Image: Nick Richards

The first Think Tank event of term kicked off with a suitably contentious topic- what to do with about returning jihadists.

The talk began with a reminder of the context- pictures of the ISIS executioner nicknamed Jihadi John, as well as figures holding up signs reading ‘Je suis Charlie’, referring to the recent massacre at the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. A chilling emphasis of the crucial nature of the subject came in the bar later on, when a cursory check of the BBC saw news filter in from Belgium. Two suspected jihadists had died with a third arrested in an anti-terror raid, after reportedly opening fire on police with “military weaponry and handguns”.

Such a salutary reminder of the capacities of returning fighters with combat training and radical ideologies ought not to be disregarded.

Nonetheless, as was made clear by event organisers Siobhan Lyons and Richard Crawshaw, for all the thousands of Western recruits that have flocked to the black banners of IS, many more hail from Arab and African nations. Often, these countries are not equipped to deal with armed and trained citizens returning home, which the plague of insurgent attacks in Egypt’s Sinai province might well show.

The discussion that followed proved to be an illuminating look at Britain’s piecemeal approach both to jihadists and foreign fighters in general- noting our contrasting perceptions of those who fight for religion, ideology, sympathy or money. The event split into several groups, each focusing on the central questions of what defines foreign fighters, what to do with returnees, how we might deal with citizens visiting conflict zones and so on, before returning to assess the ideas each had come up with.

The current institutional approach to jihadists, would be or otherwise, is to deal with them under anti-terrorism laws, rather than the oft-cited 1870 Law of Foreign Enlistment. Since a large part of the debate focused on what might be the exact definition of a ‘foreign fighter’, this proved a particularly contentious issue. Consensus eventually seemed to be reached, with a majority deciding that foreign fighters included not merely foot-soldiers, but also those providing material support within a foreign sphere to foreign military groups.

Contrasting institutional attitudes to foreign combatants (be they good or ill for the UK) were also highlighted. It was noted that one might serve with the Israeli Defence Forces and not be prosecuted (or, as two British soldiers recently did, fight against Islamic State in Syria), yet not be prosecuted- an illustration either of selective favouritism, or of British pragmatism and discomfort with inflexibility in the face of multifaceted threats.

An interesting diversion occurred with the question of whether or not women who agreed to go to Syria to be ‘jihadi brides’ might be equated with those who had been sexually trafficked. While the majority conclusion seemed to be that by making a conscious decision to travel to a conflict zone in a bid to support terrorism women (or indeed anyone) be open to prosecution, the question provided an intriguing reminder of the shades of grey that we inhabit.

On the issue of whether or not to allow UK citizens to travel to conflict zones to join foreign military forces, the event seemed to possess a two-thirds majority against. For all the internal discontent that confiscation of passports and so on might cause, it was decided that this was preferable to citizens returning home with actual knowledge of warfare and tactics, in addition to any anti-Western ideology that they might have acquired on the way.

The question of whether to prioritise monitoring, rehabilitation (as in the Danish city of Aarhus), prevention or prosecution possessed a further tragic overtone. French authorities recently admitted that the Kouachi brothers, responsible for the 12 Charlie Hebdo killings, had in fact been under surveillance (one following a prison sentence related to aiding Iraqi jihadist groups).

A prevailing view seemed to be that rehabilitation schemes were indeed the way forward, rather than blanket bans on returning fighters, but, as one attendee put it, “what would you do if Jihadi John asked to come home?”