Reports have emerged that Britons fighting with the Syrian rebels, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) want to return to the UK. A group of 30 jihadists described how they left to join ISIS to overthrow Bashar al-Assad but ended up fighting other rebel factions in gang warfare. The 'disillusioned' group have made it clear that they would be willing to undergo the government's deradicalisation Channel programme, and submit to control orders if they were guaranteed no jail terms upon returning. As a result, the debate has been initiated, whether British citizens who have been fighting with ISIS and other Al Qaeda affiliated rebels in Syria, should be allowed to return to the UK.
According to Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief at MI6 said, "repentant fighters needed to know that there is a place for them back at home." He added that returning jihadists could be an "invaluable asset" to the UK in dissuading potential fighters intending to join ISIS. Whilst I agree that British fighters can be of benefit in countering premature jihadists, they should naturally be an "asset" for the community which they belong to and whose 'problem' it is - not government agencies. The danger of returning fighters being used as a tool for security services will immediately raise concerns within a community already distrustful of the government. The fact that a minority of British fighters are willing to subscribe to the dubious Channel programme and be monitored is an admission of their 'disillusionment'. Furthermore, Britons yearning to return home could number many but remain silent due to personal safety and fear of prosecution in the UK.
An interesting model that Britain should consider is the Danish rehabilitation programme for returning fighters. Denmark's innovative strategy protects their citizens in Syria from prosecution while allowing them to hold on to (and work for) core Islamic concepts like the Caliphate, jihad, and Shariah law. They would also be allowed to criticise foreign/domestic policy, engage in political activism, attend demonstrations and fundraise for charities, on the condition they do not carry out terrorist operations in Denmark. Undoubtedly, Danish Muslims returning from Syria would have to attend counselling sessions, a preliminary period of surveillance and measures of a similar nature, but the initiative does not aim to change mainstream Islamic beliefs in the process. More importantly, the credibility of the programme will be based on its separation from the work of the security services and police investigators. Steffen Nielsen, a crime prevention advisor told Al Jazeera that Denmark is "embracing them [fighters] when they come home...Unlike in England, where maybe you're interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say - do you need any help?" The key proponents of this 'soft hands approach' are its disconnection with security services, and non-attempts by the government to redefine Islamic ideas. If the Danish strategy delivers on its promise, it would successfully tackle the domestic threat of terrorism by defining extremism and understanding Islam.
Unfortunately, none of the above matters if Prime Minister David Cameron insists on implementing further draconian anti-terror powers. His stubborn crusade has undoubtedly been influenced by the neoconservative hawks within his ranks, and the position taken by the Obama administration on ISIS. Cameron's proposed measures that would grant the police statutory powers to confiscate the passports of suspected terrorists at UK borders faced legal and political opposition last week, when critics highlighted that this policy would in effect render British citizens 'stateless'. With 200 jihadists allegedly back in the UK, the police and the MI5 yet to uncover a single terror plot involving fighters that have come back from Syria, is it time for the government to take a rational approach to the 'threat' posed by 'Islamic extremism'? Is the UK willing to embrace its citizens currently in Syria and Iraq who have realised their mistakes? Indeed, they will not be welcomed with roses and cheers like Britons who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War or battle-hardened Jews returning from serving the Israeli army, but surely a level of responsibility has to be accepted by the government?
If British foreign policy in the Muslim world can be seriously revised, and a genuine effort by the government not to modify Islam by funding embarrassingly unpopular 'Muslim' think-tanks and self-professed scholars, only then can Britain, as a nation, begin to work towards a practical solution in tackling extremism.