The 360: Should British ISIS fighters be allowed to return home?

Andy Wells
Freelance Writer

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening:

There has been “deep concern” expressed by NATO about Turkey’s recent military intervention in northern Syria. In an already unstable part of the world, Turkey’s actions have once again put Syria back into the spotlight - with repercussions expected throughout the region and beyond.

One of those potential repercussions is a fear that ISIS fighters who travelled to the war-torn area from Britain will escape and try to return to the UK. Recently, hundreds of ISIS family members are believed to have escaped from Kurdish camps in the wake of the renewed confusion and chaos that Turkey’s offensive has brought.

US President Donald Trump has previously said that escaped ISIS fighters will likely return to Europe. Now, Western governments are left wondering whether those who travelled to Syria will return - and what should be done with them if they do.

Why there’s debate:

The British government will need to tread a fine line between obeying the law and keeping UK citizens - and potentially voters - happy.

ISIS schoolgirl bride Shamima Begum said earlier this year that she wanted to return to Britain to have her baby, having left the country to join the terrorist group in 2015.

However, then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid made the decision to strip Begum of her British citizenship - something that was supported by 76% of Britons, according to a YouGov poll.

On Tuesday, Begum launched a legal challenge against the government's decision.

Public outcry at Begum’s desire to come back was also backed up by a petition on the government’s website, which saw nearly 600,000 people demand all ISIS members be banned from returning to the UK.

Those who oppose the return of any ISIS fighters to the UK argue that they are “traitors” and risk launching attacks on British soil if they are allowed back into the country. Some argue that if the fighters are allowed back into the country and are convicted, they risk further radicalisation behind bars or may radicalise others to their ideology.

However, others believe that members of ISIS should be allowed to return to the UK so they can be tried and punished according to our laws.

Stripping them of citizenship, as Javid did to Begum, also runs the risk of leaving a person stateless, which would be against international law.

And supporters of allowing ISIS fighters to return also feel it is simply a matter of responsibility - and they should not be left for Syria to deal with.

What’s next:

Two captured British ISIS fighters, part of the so-called ‘Beatles’ group that included Jihadi John, have repeatedly expressed their desire to return to the UK.

However, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh have been transferred to Iraq by the US military as a result of Turkey’s action in Syria.

It is expected that they will be moved to Virginia where they will likely face the death penalty after being put on trial.

Critics argue that the pair should be sent back to Britain to face trial here, while Elsheikh’s mother challenged Javid’s decision not to block extradition to the US despite them facing the death penalty. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and MI6 chiefs all support repatriation of other ISIS Brits, but there is opposition from Home Secretary Priti Patel.

A looming general election - and possible change of government - may yet determine the fate of the ISIS fighters and their family members.

Perspectives:

Research suggests returnees won’t necessarily become terrorists

“The U.K. relied upon one 2013 study indicating that, in theory, as many as 10 percent of returnees could become terrorists. However, the same researcher found in 2015 that the rate was actually .002 percent, and hundreds of returnees have already been back for years with no sign of terror activity. The local IS network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks included some returnees. But otherwise foreign fighters have not produced a wave of domestic terrorism in the West.” – David Malet, The Conversation

Britain will be able to manage the risk of a return to terrorist behaviour

“We cannot eliminate the risk of terrorist behaviour entirely. Yet by bringing home, and observing the rule of law for those who travelled to Daesh, we can reduce that risk and do more. It also challenges the extremist belief that the West doesn’t care about Muslim citizens or that our support of human rights is window dressing rather than conviction. It also minimises the risk of radical belief and belonging transferring to next generation through reintegration.” – Dr Katherine Brown, University of Birmingham

They must face justice in British courts

“You can't just leave them there. Bring them home and there are methods of monitoring and restraining these ISIS radicals. If you're someone who has left Britain for Syria, you must face the full judicial service in this country and you go to jail and if you do you aren't allowed to spread your beliefs.” – Anthony Loyd, GQ

Reintegration programmes are working in other countries

“Unlike France, Britain or Germany, the Danish state does not automatically prosecute these individuals. It also does not try to revoke their citizenship rights. Instead, Danish officials allow these people to join a reintegration programme supported by the government… The Danish model appears to be working. Such programmes not only help create a relationship of trust between the state and former fighters, reducing security risks, they also save young lives by helping returnees re-integrate into society.” – Imran Awan, Al Jazeera

Syria should not be made responsible for their actions

“British, American and European governments need to take responsibility for these foreign members of the Islamic State and a decision about their future should be made by the penal systems of their countries. Syrians must not be forced to have to take care of them. We need to purge people like them from Syria if our country is ever to recovery from this plague. They must be removed from Syria immediately and forever.” – Abdalaziz Alhamza, The New York Times

Jail terms risk making the problem worse

“Individuals are often still at a prime age for jihadist recruitment in jail and for violence when they leave incarceration. Indeed, given the large number of radicals in jail, there is a danger that they will become more radical or radicalize others. Jail, in other words, risks making the problem worse.” – Daniel Byman, Vox

Not allowing them home may be a simple case of breaking the law

“We need a considered legal judgement as to the status and rights of UK citizens who have chosen to travel abroad and involve themselves, actively or passively, in a foreign conflict. Each case should be considered on its merits. If a person has the right to return, and the practicalities of repatriation can be satisfied, then they should come back and, if appropriate, face charges. This should not be a political decision; it should be a legal one.” – The Independent

They are traitors and should be treated as such

“America and Britain should stand firm together on this, and simply revoke their passports. They’re traitors, pure and simple. And traitors deserve not one iota of ‘fairness’. Indeed, the only ‘fairness’ I would show is towards their own innocent children who should be sent home for adoption by decent, humane people, not cared for by radicalised terror-lovers. My message to both these brides, and any others like them, is this: You made your ISIS husband beds, now you can rot in hell in them.” – Piers Morgan, Daily Mail

Making people stateless is not a solution

“I don’t think it is possible for Britain to say this is all someone else’s problem (and that) we are going to leave them in some other part of the world or not allow them to enter the UK. I think it’s a bit of justice and actually a bit of compassion. Just making people stateless is not really a solution and it is asking other countries to deal with our problems when they’ve got their own problems.” - George Osborne, CNBC

Britain must accept responsibility

“I really think this country has to suck it up. Frankly, the situation in Syria is bad enough without bequeathing that wretched country dangerous extremists from Britain. The country must take the consequences of its own laxity, in education, social policy, immigration and security.” - Melanie McDonagh, The Spectator

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Top picture: PA