Comment: ‘ISIS traitors should be kept where they are’: what or who decides the fate of those who want to return?

“Keep them there.” “They joined ISIS and returning them to the UK represents a clear security and ideological risk.” “They’re traitors. They gave up their rights by joining ISIS. Now they have to live with it.” “She didn’t show sorrow in the media interview.”

These oft-repeated comments are heard when cases involving British/Western ISIS members are discussed in the public domain. Discussions tend toward the emotive and politicized – between what Western governments should be doing to ‘punish’ individuals, balanced with the law rightly tied to human rights. This blog will outline some of the discussion points and the ConnectFutures position on this important topic.

On 22nd October 2019, a four day preliminary hearing started at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a specialist court that hears challenges to decisions to deprive someone’s British citizenship on national security grounds.  The court has been discussing Shamima Begum’s challenge to the UK’s withdrawal of her citizenship and therefore to her right to return. A second stage of Ms Begum’s legal challenge, to be heard at a later date, will look at the government’s allegations that she poses an ongoing threat to national security.  Other cases making the headlines include those of Kotey and ElSheikh labelled “the Beatles” who are in American custody and who could face  trial and a potential death penalty  if found guilty in the US courts. A High Court hearing has been scheduled this week in London in a case brought by ElSheikh’s mother who argues her son should be should be tried in the UK. The UK Supreme Court is also expected to issue a ruling on the Tooba Gondal case (Gondal is alleged to have recruited Shamima Begum) who is also appealing to come home with her children.


So why is the topic of returnees – including children – and foreign fighters back in the media spotlight?  Approximately 400 British foreign fighters out of 850 have already returned voluntarily to the UK – mostly in the first wave before the declaration of a ‘caliphate’ in the year before June 2014 and another wave in early 2015.  Most are interviewed by the security services to establish what they experienced, the risk they may pose and the prospects for a safe resettlement.   A ‘significant proportion’ of these individuals were assessed as no longer being of national security concern.

With the recent decision of the US to suddenly withdraw from its positions in northern Syria, urgency has again been placed on foreign governments to meaningfully resolve the fate of ISIS detainees, particularly as questions around risk, radicalisation and security threats continue.  The US has called upon foreign countries to repatriate their nationals. Further questions about the policy and legal implications around the repatriation of children of foreign nationals persist. Currently, 12,000 suspected ISIS fighters are being held in seven prisons in N E Syria. Between 2000-4000 (estimates vary) are ‘foreign’ fighters from 50 different countries.  About 800 of these are from European nations and about 30 are British. The United Nations has said that countries should take responsibility for their own nationals (unless prosecuted in Syria under international standards) – and more than 1,200 foreign nationals, mainly children, have already been repatriated by countries such as Russia, Kosovo, Turkey and Kazakhstan.  At the moment, European countries have taken only a handful of mostly young children.

With the US pull out and the death of Baghdadi, the situation on the ground remains fluid and the detainees in the Kurdish held camps – some who would want to stay and fight, and others who want to return home,  needs to be urgently addressed. The argument is within the framework of the law: prosecution, interrogation and possible re-integration are just some of the tools at the disposal of States when it comes to addressing the issue of foreign fighters. Similarly, a position on what must be done with young children needs consideration rather than offsetting them as another nation’s problem.

The headline or more emotive responses to pressures to take back ISIS members revolve around everything from their security risk to the view that they are traitors who have given up their citizenship rights by joining a terrorist group.  With individuals such as Shamima Begum, there has been a strong reaction that she did not show remorse in an interview (among other things) and does not deserve our sympathy. Yet, we at ConnectFutures would argue that public opinion should not be allowed to condition what is a question of national and international law.  We believe that four aspects are evident and should be considered – legal, moral, humanitarian and procedural.

Whose law?

The legal position relates to citizenship and the rights of citizens: it has become clear that the UK government’s claim that Shamima Begum has dual citizenship may not hold – as Bangladesh is refusing to accord this and indeed would treat her harshly – perhaps, her lawyers say, hang her – should she travel there (she is not ‘returning’). ConnectFutures’ position is strictly that of the rule of law: UK nationals have the right of return. Removal of British citizenship is possible only if someone has dual citizenship, as by international law an individual cannot be rendered stateless. Jack Letts (‘Jihadi Jack’) does have dual nationality (his father is Canadian) although Canada, like Bangladesh, strongly contests the decision to refuse entry as UK ‘offloading its responsibilities’. The question of whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute on their return is secondary to this right of return, although it relates to the practical issue of structures in place for assuring the security of others and for deradicalization and reintegration.

Whose problem?  

The moral questions revolve around responsibility.  Given that the Bethnal Green girls and numerous others who joined ISIS were radicalised in this country, we have a responsibility for their future – including any deradicalisation.  The States’ responsibility is to ensure that its citizens are returned and face due process and justice here. We define our country, our state and our institutions by stating we abide by the rule of law (one of the British Values which we emphasise as part of the Prevent training) and yet we are sending mixed messages that some British citizen’s can potentially face the death penalty in America (rather than face justice here or being kept in Syria). This would be set a terrible precedent.

Whose humanity?

The position of children and orphans is both a legal and humanitarian issue.  UNICEF reported that 70,000 children had been displaced in just a week of fighting in October.  More than 60 British children of Islamic State members are stuck in eastern Syria – more than double the number previously thought, according to Save The Children. They are enduring dire conditions in the refugee camps or have been displaced more than once.   There are thought to be more than 9,500 foreign children in the camps, many born under the ISIS ‘caliphate’. With many European countries, including Britain, stripping their parents of citizenship, their legal status is unclear. Agencies such as Save the Children argue strongly that Britain should seek to repatriate all the UK minors in Syria.  Children whose parents are alive are just as innocent as those who have been orphaned. It was reported on Oct 20th that British officials have ‘taken the first steps’ to repatriate children stranded in Syria by liaising directly with agencies on the ground to identify unaccompanied minors for ‘safe passage’ back home. It is hoped this admittedly complex process can be achieved as soon as feasible.

Whose procedure?

With adults, the final question relates what happens to returnees after they have faced investigation and/or trial. As in other EU countries, rehabilitation and reintegration schemes have been introduced inside and outside prison in the UK.  Where an individual has not committed an offence – or there is not a public interest to prosecute – they may be put into a deradicalisation programme, such as the UK government’s own Desistance and Disengagement programme (DDP), which can include intensive mentoring and support from psychologists and others.  While it may not be perfect, what must not happen is an angry trial by the public or the media which could undermine efforts based on the rule of law.

The State’s duty also relates to longer term responsibilities for building resilience to violent extremism and providing sustained financial support for educational and community programmes that do this.  The gender aspects need to be factored in too. Moral, humanitarian, practical and legal issues all overlap in the continued struggle against violent extremism. The UK government should show that they do not hold justice and security as antithetical, but part of the same duty.

Finally, as a democratic nation, it’s important to say that the judicial and legal system must remain open, accessible and transparent to all and especially when dealing with matters of national security.

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