As the anniversary to the September 11th attacks approaches, Dr Adnan Siddiqui asks whether or not the British government's stance on returnees from Syria represents an evolution in thinking from the knee-jerk reaction we saw on that day in America 13 years ago.
One can't help feeling a sense of déjà vu as David Cameron prepares the UK for air strikes against ISand tells the public that we should be prepared for a "generational” conflict. Last year he was saying the same thingabout the war against Al-Qaeda, yet now he is talking about an adversary that even Al-Qaeda has disavowed.
As we approach the anniversary of 9/11 and 13 years of the War on Terror one must ask what progress have we made? Are we any safer with the terror threat level being raised last week? Are Afghanistan and Iraq bastions of democracy? After 7/7 and the introduction of the PREVENT and Channel programmes has this stopped, or even reduced, the numbers of young Muslims, both men and women, travelling to conflict zones or ending up in the criminal justice system? We know the answer to all these questions, yet the Government seems to believe that upgrading to the “War on Terror 2.0” and proposing the same solutions will somehow result in a different outcome.
At this critical juncture we need calmer, wiser and braver voices to propose solutions. One of those is Richard Barrett, former global counter-terrorism chief of MI6, who has proposed leniency in dealing with fighters who wish to return home from Iraq or Syria, understanding that the motivations for going will be different for each individual. The fears of blowback are understandable, but those who believe in IS' vision have made it clear that they have no intention in returning – indeed the very idea of removing their citizenship only acquiesces their understanding that they require their own homeland.
Several reports in the media have given us an insight into the mood on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Disillusionment is a common factorand the creeping realisation that IS is not a utopia and its victims are both Muslim and non-Muslim. These are consistent messages that we have promulgated in public and in private despite the attempts of PREVENT to stop us speaking. One of our most powerful messengers is Moazzam Begg who wrote and spoke eloquently about the need to be just and show reconciliation despite his ill-treatment at the hands of the US and UK. His voice could reach far in the current climate.
We also call for an amnesty for those who want to return. We recognise that part of being young is the propensity to "go with one's heart" and make mistakes but everyone should be offered the opportunity to change their mind. Risk-taking behaviour is part of the makeup of youth and there is much to learn from those with experience of tackling gang warfare, drugs and other life threatening behaviour that can be replicated in helping people to readjust.
Returnees need to be treated on a case by case basis and suggestions of enrolment on compulsory "deradicalisation" programmes is more of a box ticking exercise that has shown little or no effect over the past 10 years. Of the models that buck the trend are the Hayat programme in Germany and a programme in Denmark tailor-made to suit the needs of young men returning from the region. Neither models stigmatise the people they are trying to help, while both incorporate pastoral care and mentoring as part of its programme. A key issue in all these programmes is to have credibility with your clientele, something echoed by Richard Barrett who stated that returnees will not listen to "men in suits". This also applies to those perceived to be parroting government lines which does not help to bridge the "us vs them" mentality.
Membership of IS isn’t the core issue here: many of these young men travelled to Syria to fight a war against Bashar al-Assad on the side of the rebels who were being supported – at the time – by the UK government. Though the war and the government’s view on Syrian rebels have moved on, prosecuting these men today for something that the government didn’t consider prosecutable a year ago, will only further highlight the confused and for some duplicitous nature of UK foreign and domestic policy.
Conflict resolution and dialogue provide the only ways forward to resolving these issues, but both sides have to play their part. Criminalising figures such as Abu Qatada, who helped secure the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, and Moazzam Begg, who has been commended by US authorities for his bridge-building efforts on behalf of imprisoned Guantanamo detainees, does the opposite and further repels the communities the government should be trying to work with. Piling the pressure on organisations like CAGE, who are calling for peaceful means also sends out a message that the government simply does not want to engage.
The challenge for the government is to see whether they will follow the route of populist warmongering that will win short term electoral gain, or show statesmanship that will result in unpopularity but can help resolve the "generational conflict" that Cameron and his predecessors have sought to win.
(CC image courtesy of Sarah on Flickr)
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)