by Susannah Tarbush, London
The rise of ISIL (known also by the Arabic acronym Dai’ish) in Iraq and Syria, and its declaration of a caliphate state in the area it controls, has added an alarming new dimension to the long-standing problem of Islamist extremism and terror in the UK.
There is anxiety both over the direct participation of young British Muslims who have joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, and over the radicalising impact on some young British Muslims of its massive propaganda effort on the social media to publicise its gains and attract recruits to its cause. IS has urged its followers to carry out attacks wherever, and in whatever way, they can.
The police and the security service MI5 have warned senior British ministers that the scale of terrorist activity within the UK is now so big that a terror attack is “almost inevitable”. This follows the increase in the terror level in the UK at the end of August to “severe” because of the threat associated with Da’ish.
An estimated 500 to 600 British Muslims have been out to Syria to fight with IS and other Islamist groups. About half of them are thought to have returned to the UK. But as they return, others travel out to Syria.
The passports of some Britons seen as Islamist extremists have been confiscated to prevent them travelling to Syria or elsewhere. Home Secretary Theresa May has used the “royal prerogative” to withdraw passports 23 times in the 12 months to August 2014.
But there was intense embarrassment for the government authorities when it was revealed on 11 November that one of the most outspoken public supporters of Da’ish in the UK, Abu Rumaysah, had fled the UK with his family 24 hours after being ordered by a court to surrender his passport as a bail condition. He failed to surrender his passport, and is thought to be in Syria in the area controlled by IS.
Abu Rumaysah (a Hindu convert to Islam, originally named Siddhartha Dhar), had been arrested on 25 September along with eight other men including the notorious Anjem Choudary. Choudary jointly led Al-Muhajiroun with Syrian Omar Bakri Mohammad before it was banned in 2005, and he remains an influence on certain young Muslims. Individuals associated with Choudary have been involved in several terror plots over the years, but although he continually makes inflammatory statements in support of terror, and has been arrested several times, he remains at liberty.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe
So far around 30 British jihadists are known to have been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq; the true figure is likely to be higher than this. In addition to the young men going out to fight in Syria and Iraq, British Muslim teenagers and young women are going out, often to marry jihadi fighters.
Because of the heightened threat from terrorism, security was extremely high on the annual Remembrance Sunday, this year on 9 November, at the military parade during which the Queen and politicians laid wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, near parliament.
In the three days before Remembrance Sunday four young Muslim men were arrested in West London and the town of High Wycombe. There were newspaper reports that they had plotted attack the Remembrance Sunday event and to kill the Queen herself.
In a separate alleged plot, four young Muslim men from West London were charged in mid-October with intending to commit acts of terrorism. They were said to have sworn allegiance to Da’ish and to have plotted a terror attack on soldiers or police in London. A fifth man was charged with transferring a Baikal handgun and ammunition.
Britain has already experienced the devastating effects of Islamist terrorism. On 7 July 2005 four suicide bombers killed 52 innocent people in attacks on the London underground system and a bus. Three of the four suicide bombers were British-born Muslims of Pakistani origin. And on 22 May 2013 British soldier Lee Rigby was killed in broad daylight in a London street by two young Nigerian men who had been brought up as Christians but converted to Islam. They ran him over in a car and tried to cut his head off.
The widespread use of beheading in Syria and Iraq is characteristic of Da’ish’s terror, and some Britons have played a part in this. A tall hooded man dressed in black and speaking English with a London accent has been has been seen in videos on different occasions since August beheading American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, then Britons David Haines, and Alan Henning, and most recently American Muslim convert Abdul Rahman – or Peter – Kassig. This apparently British beheader has been nicknamed by the media “Jihadi John”.
The first suicide bombing by a Briton in Iraq was recently carried out by Kabir Ahmed, known as Abu Sumayyah al-Britani, from the northern English city of Derby. He had served a jail term in the UK for saying gays should be put to death. Ahmed carried out a suicide attack on behalf of Da’ish in the town of Biaji, killing a senior Iraqi police official and seven other police officers. Abdul Waheed Majeed, the first British suicide bomber in Syria, blew himself up in February when he drove a lorry packed with explosives into a jail in Aleppo.
In trying to deal with the threat of terror related to Islamic State the government has to decide what to do about those jihdais who have returned or want to return, as well as trying to deter those who plan to go out to join IS.
On 13 November, during a speech to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Cameron unveiled the measures that will be included in a new anti-terror bill. The government intended to publish the bill by the end of November and to rush it through parliament so that it becomes law by the end of January.
Under the proposed new anti-terror law, suspected jihadis returning from Syria or Iraq will be prevented - under new “Temporary Exclusion Orders” - from returning to Britain for at least two years - unless they agree to face a court trial, home detention, or police monitoring, or to go on a “deradicalisation” course.
If they do not agree to these conditions, their passports will be cancelled and their names will be put on a “no fly” list to prevent them returning. “Airlines that don’t comply with our no-fly lists or security screening measures will be prevented from landing in the UK,” Cameron declared. Jihadis who try to enter Britain in secret will face a five-year jail term under a new criminal offence.
The police will also have the power to seize for 30 days the passports of those people it suspects of intending to travel abroad to fight in Syria or Iraq. But these proposed measures in the anti-terrorism bill are highly controversial, and there are concerns that they are not compatible with existing laws on human rights, immigration and citizenship. For example, refusing to allow British jihadis to return to the UK could be seen as making them stateless, which is illegal under British and international law.
The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper says “much more” needs to be done to prevent radicalisation and said the government should force all returning jihadis to go through a deradicalisation process.
Deradicalisation programmes are designed to prevent or reverse radicalisation but there are doubts over how effective they really are. One main deradicalisation programme is the Channel programme which is part of the Preventing Violent Extremism strategy, known as “Prevent”, introduced by the Labour government after the London suicide bombings of July 2005.
The Channel programme aims to identifying those at risk of engaging in violent extremism and to support them, primarily through community-based interventions, challenging their extremist beliefs. But it is under-funded and can hardly cope with the growing demand on its resources. Between April 2007 and March this year nearly 4,000 people were referred to Channel. Currently, around 50 people a week are being referred to deradicalisation programmes.
The uncertainly in recent weeks over how jihadis will be treated when they return to the UK is making some of them reluctant to come back. It was reported recently that up to 100 British jihadis who had left Syria were stranded in Turkey, scared to come home. Dai’ish had apparently taken the passports of some.
Some observers are adamant that jihadis should never be allowed back into Britain. On a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 series The World Tonight, Colonel Richard Kemp a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan said: “We have to assume that having got blood on their hands they could well come and carry out acts of terrorism against us. The best thing is that they don’t get a chance.
Kemp adds: “Why should we spend our taxes on putting them in front of a court and putting them in prison, or spending vast amounts of money on deradicalisation, or on surveillance? The best thing is they don’t come back.”
But Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) disagrees. “We need to consider the lessons of history. What happened after [the war against the Soviets] in Afghanistan in the 1980s was that people were not allowed to go back to their own countries. A lot of Middle Eastern countries were taking passports away, and threatening really severe repression to the ‘Afghan Arabs’ who fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan.”
These 'Afghan Arabs' were trapped in Afghanistan, and “they went on to other battle fronts, they formed international networks out of which eventually Al-Qaeda emerged.”