UK’s war on terror 2.0

Should the UK punish its nationals who come back from fighting in Syria or Iraq?

British Home Secretary Theresa May announced today that the UK's terror threat level is being raised from 'substantial' to 'severe' in response to the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria [Getty Images

It’s a familiar script, but upgraded: a sort of war on terror 2.0. As the medievally violent Islamic State group kills and terrorises its way across Syria and Iraq, the British government’s response has been to dust off the hysteria-laden counter-terror tenets of the post-9/11 years, with a few added new features. 

Prime Minister David Cameron is trying (and thus far failing) to find a way to revoke citizenship for British fighters returning from Syria and Iraq – a fundamentally anti-democratic move that would render people stateless. Meanwhile, London mayor Boris Johnson recently said that all British fighters in Syria should be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Such proposals come in the context of a terror threat we’re told has increased from “substantial” to “severe”. Former security chiefs caution against overestimating the possibility of an imminent attack on UK soil, but that hasn’t stopped a slew of politicians from panic-mongering over the issue, in a perfect illustration of what commentator Peter Oborne has described as the practice of “spinning terror”.    

Inside Story – Second ‘beheading’: More pressure on West?

We knew that British citizens were among the foreign fighters recruited by Islamic State – some 500 Brits are said to be fighting in Syria and Iraq. But hearing a British-accented voice in the video depicting journalist James Foley’s brutal killing – and the suspicion that the same man, dubbed “Jihadi John”, could have now killed another US journalist, Steven Sotloff  ­- makes the fact more viscerally, menacingly clear.
Those tragic and horrific beheadings are shocking by design: the Islamic State group, just like its ideological forebear al-Qaeda, uses killing as spectacle. But the filmed atrocities are also intended to goad, which is exactly why this is not the time for the sort of rights-stripping, populist proposals that some cabinet members seem so keen to push through.
If the war on terror years taught us anything, it’s that sweepingly punitive measures don’t work to counter violent extremism – if anything, they make the situation worse by bluntly targeting and alienating the exact community that is vulnerable to recruitment by jihadi killing cults.  
A report earlier this year by civil liberties group CAGE argued that the UK government’s counter-terror strategy, involving “cradle to grave” surveillance of British Muslims, is worse than the methods used by the US to monitor suspected communist sympathisers during the Cold War era.
Meanwhile last week, a senior official with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said that the government’s Prevent counter-terror policy was having a “negative impact”. Deputy secretary general Harun Khan told BBC radio that the policy, devised to lessen the influence of extremists, in fact, had the opposite effect: alienating young Muslims, leaving some people “lost and disenfranchised” and thereby vulnerable to radicalisation.
Another drawback has been the smothering of vital sources of support. Arun Kundani, author of The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counter-radicalisation strategies, told me by phone: “The danger here is that you end up losing human intel because you’ve demonised the whole community. Rather than be seen as a potential source of useful information, the whole community is criminalised instead.”
It should be obvious by now that such attempts at “de-radicalisation” are failing because of a reluctance to confront some of the causes of extremism. The links between foreign policy in the Middle East and violent extremism have been cited by practically the entire spectrum of involved professionals, from ex-security officials to politicians, counter-terror analysts and grassroots community workers. But they are all routinely disregarded.
In a column for the UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, David Cameron typically dismissed any connection to the Iraq invasion of 2003 – the disastrous war that dismantled the Iraqi state and spawned a local branch of al-Qaeda; instead, he described the emergence of Islamic State as a “generational struggle”.
It doesn’t matter how many times community workers warn of the perils of rejecting this crucial connection, the government isn’t listening – predictably, since any acknowledgement would implicitly contain some admission of a failed foreign policy. Rizwaan Sabir, a specialist in counter-terrorism at Bath University, told me: “This is the most counter-productive aspect of counter-terrorism strategy – that it has closed down the space for free, unfettered debate.”
Those working on the ground have consistently said that such debate is an essential part of countering and dismantling extremist ideologies – it has to be out in the open for it to be effectively debunked. But if the government’s counter-terror strategy sees criticising foreign policy while being Muslim as a warning flag that warrants concern and surveillance, why would anyone openly discuss such views? And how could the effect of that be anything other than to marginalise and alienate?
Now grassroots workers describe a withering of relations between the Muslim community and the coalition government. The MCB, an organisation that denounced the Islamic State and at the same time has extensive local networks across the UK, urged the government to reopen a dialogue and utilise the group in the fight against violent extremism. The wasted opportunities of this situation cannot be overstated; Sabir describes “a significant removal of engagement with those people and organisations who have the experience and ability to influence individuals deemed to be vulnerable to becoming involved in political violence”.
Meanwhile, analysts have warned that the current focus on punitive consequences for Britons coming back from Syria or Iraq misses the potentially preventative aspects that could be gained by dealing with the issue differently. According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), some of those foreigners going to fight in Syria end up disillusioned and in need of a way out – research on jihadis returning from previous conflicts shows the vast majority don’t get involved with terrorism.
Writing for the UK Independent newspaper, Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann, of the ICSR research unit, noted that fighters facing draconian measures upon return to the UK may then stay in Syria – meaning that treating all foreign fighters as terrorists “risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy”. Disillusioned, penitent fighters could play a part in counter-extremism if engaged to discourage potential recruits to the jihadi cause.
But a knee-jerk retrogression hangs over the current government’s approach, essentially a return to the doomed “with us or against us” logic of the war on terror. This stance has spectacularly failed us in the past precisely because solutions lie in the vital spaces in between stark binary opposition – spaces that hold views we might disagree with but nonetheless must engage with; spaces that we stifle at our own peril.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.