Turning Them Around
Wreaths of flowers were laid to commemorate Britain’s war dead on Remembrance Day. But days before, police arrested four men suspected of planning a terrorist attack, perhaps aimed at disrupting the celebration. The plot was foiled, but the security services claim an attack is almost inevitable. They fret especially about the threat posed by jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq. Around 500-600 Britons are thought to have gone to fight. The flow has slowed now, as the brutality of the Islamic State (IS) has become more evident. It probably discourages others from going. However, concerns about attacks at home are rising. As the scale of the threat grows, the UK government’s and the security services’ response is becoming more sophisticated.
About half of those who left to fight have returned. Some are battle-hardened, but the training IS gives to its foreign recruits is limited, explains Peter Neumann from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in London. On arrival in Syria they are screened to weed out spies and their skills are assessed. Next, most of them are given about ten days of basic fighting instruction. So far there is little evidence of the kind of advanced training camps which were seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As a result, sophisticated bomb plots are beyond foreign recruits’ capabilities whereas their smaller attacks may be more than likely.
As worries grow, the British government’s response has changed. Initially it talked tough and suggested seizing fighters’ passports and prosecuting them for treason. But such extreme ideas have proved hard to implement. Just 24 people have been charged and only five successfully prosecuted for Syria-related offences. Monitoring every returnee is not an advisable solution. Mr Malcolm Rifkind, the head of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee points to its legal and financial limitations. Putting suspects under 24-hour surveillance is costly, and legal permission for such tracking is not open-ended.
Now, the government is of the opinion that focusing on rehabilitation could be more effective. Some returnees are dangerous, but most are just disillusioned and disturbed, argues Mr Neumann. For them, he says, alternatives to prison are more appropriate. Recently a Conservative politician confirmed that some former fighters would be dealt with through a programme called Channel. It is part of the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy which aims to divert people from all kinds of extremism.
Such programmes rarely work on hardened extremists. But for those who feel they made a mistake going to war, the process of deradicalisation can be more beneficial than a jail sentence. In the Channel programme the police choose individuals for deradicalisation and reject the ones who should be prosecuted. After this selection suitable returnees undergo tailored interventions by religious experts, police, social workers, psychologists and others. The downside is that, because of the government’s current budget cuts, those tasked with putting the programme into effect, such as local councils, may not have enough resources to do so. The Channel concentrates on returning fighters and on those at risk of radicalization. Numbers are going higher and higher. It increases costs a lot.
In choosing rehabilitation Britain is following more closely the examples of some neighbours – and diverging from that of others. France – from where almost 1,000 fighters have departed – takes a tough approach. It focuses on intelligence and law enforcement in its counter-terrorism strategy. By contrast, Denmark focuses on deradicalisation, using existing structures that deal with other social problems. Rachel Briggs of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue points to Germany’s tradition of rehabilitation programmes to help people leave extremist groups. Sweden does the same. In the past they had programmes for members of far-right groups, now their attention is also turning to Islamic extremists.
Promoting such rehabilitation programmes can be tricky as few politicians want to appear soft on terrorists. But it is in Britain’s interests to follow this option. Not being rehabilitated, and being sentenced to prison instead, once free again extremists will surely start radicalizing the next generation. The state cannot lock people up forever. What is worse, preventing attacks by zealots untouched by the horrors of IS’s war could prove harder than dealing with disillusioned returning jihadists.