What is ISIS?

The rise of the Islamic State continues to grab the headlines as they take control of large amounts of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq. Its brutal tactics, including mass killings and abductions of members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the beheadings of soldiers and journalists, have sparked outrage across the world and prompted military intervention from the West. In September the BBC reported that ISIS could have as many as 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria but the exact numbers of those who have joined the fighting from Britain remains to be vague. Reports suggest that at least 500 British citizens are thought to be involved, with this number still rising. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, recently revealed that every week at least five Britons are travelling to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS and claimed that the “drumbeat of terrorism in the UK” is now “faster and more intense”.

The question remains for the UK government whether they will take a tough approach to those fighting abroad, or whether they will offer a more lenient stance and try to use the returning extremist jihadis for intelligence purposes.


It has recently come to light that the government and members of parliament have been discussing the possibility that British nationals fighting for ISIS will be prosecuted for treason in UK courts should they decide to return home. The Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, has come out as a strong advocate of this proposition and conservative backbencher Phillip Hollobone said that “aiding and abetting enemies of Her Majesty is one of the greatest offences a British citizen can commit.”

Treason has a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in the UK, although nobody has been prosecuted for high treason since the immediate aftermath of World War II over fifty years ago so whether prosecution is still an option for the government is doubtful. Hammond raised his concerns when he said that “we’ve seen situations of people declaring that they have sworn personal allegiance to the so-called Islamic State and that does raise questions about their loyalty and allegiance to this country and raises questions about whether offences of treason could have been committed.”

This stringent approach seems to have support from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner who is highly concerned with the impact that returning fighters may have. The Met say they have made 218 arrests for terrorist-related activity this year, an increase of about 70% in three years, and the Commissioner said that “a large part of this increased arrest rate is due to terrorist activities, plots and planning linked to Syria. The trend is, I think, set to continue.” He added that the return of “potentially militarised individuals” to the UK “is a risk to our communities.”

Welcome Home?

One may think that welcoming home extremist fighters back into Britain is not a risk worth taking, but that is not the view of former global counter-terrorism director of MI6, Richard Barrett. He has claimed that those fighting in the conflict need “to know that there is a place for them back at home” and emphasised the potential source of intelligence information that they can provide, stating that “many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.”

“These ex-fighters could help the authorities to understand better than they do now why people are still going to Syria and Iraq and what needs to be done to slow the flow to a trickle or stop it altogether,” said Barrett. To me, his argument seems to have a solid foundation; why marginalise these people when they can be a potential asset to the war against the Islamic State and religious radicalism.

Barrett does however understand the worries of many that by allowing these people back into Britain, they will bring terrorism with them.  He knows that “the law must take its course” but goes on to argue that the repentant fighters “need to know there is a place for them back at home if they are committed to a non-violent future.”

The Question Remains

The question still remains as to how the government will react to those returning from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. A line must clearly be drawn between those who are returning with the intention of bringing terror to the streets of Britain, and those who are returning with genuine remorse and are committed to renouncing violence.

My views seem to be echoed by the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, who suggested that we shouldn’t “give them a total amnesty, but we could treat them leniently in return for completing a de-radicalisation programme.”

Cover image courtesy of Flickr and Karl- Ludwig Poggemann under Creative Commons Licence