Countering ISIS Abroad: Is the U.K. a Breeding Ground for Jihadists?

Despite the high number of British recruits to the Islamic State, the U.K. has set the gold standard in counter-terrorism policy. Any expansion of government powers risks harming its citizens’ basic rights.

Simon Palombi
Simon Palombi
An Islamic State militant in the Syrian town of Raqa.
An Islamic State militant in the Syrian town of Raqa.Credit: AFP
Simon Palombi
Simon Palombi

Of the European countries, the United Kingdom is second only to France in the number of its citizensfighting in Iraq and Syria, though the number of those assumed to be within the ranks of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has not been disclosed.

Naturally, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May, who have been vocal on the issue of Britons fighting in the Middle East since late last year, have sought to reassure the British public that something will be done – and to reassure the rest of the world that the U.K. is not a breeding ground for radicalization.

Yet, countering radicalization is not as simple as asking whether more could be done to prevent it. While any fearful citizen would answer in the affirmative, there are limits to what any liberal-democratic government can do in this regard. Ultimately, beyond asking community leaders to denounce extremist propaganda, banning extremist literature, and engaging at-risk social groups, increased measures to prevent radicalization run the risk of creating a ubiquitous government presence – something that is neither possible in the Internet age, nor acceptable.

Instead, the U.K. has a number of tools already in place to discourage its citizens seeking to join foreign conflicts. From criminal sanctions for associating with terrorist organizations to administrative controls, such as being stripped of U.K. citizenship (for dual citizenship holders) or court imposed 24-hour monitoring, the U.K. has what many view as the gold standard in counter-terrorism policy. And this is still true, regardless of the failures of the community engagement section of its CONTEST policy, which aims to work with the Muslim community and focus on those sectors and institutions with a high risk of radicalization.

But with constant reminders of the current threats and risks posed by IS, whether misplaced or not, the U.K. government is promising overt action to strike back, as if it is fighting a symmetric adversary that can be degraded and destroyed by force. As far as airstrikes in Iraq are concerned, they have their value, and the U.K. should proportionately seek out those who harm its nationals, but on the home front, overt responses to radicalization play to ‘expectation management,' rather than sound counter-terrorism policy and/or preventative action.

Obviously, criminal sanctions could be considered counter-intuitive in that they require the individual to already be radicalized in order to be effective (i.e. they can’t be pre-emptive.) But that does not necessarily make them ineffective. Indeed, the fundamental problem with countering an ideology in any liberal-democratic society is that there are rights that protect the public against prosecution for thought crimes, regardless of how abhorrent they are. Thus, for counter-terrorism laws to work, thoughts need to be acted on by the individual.

This seemingly inconvenient truth works for the security services. For example, banning extremist views, whether right-wing, left-wing, Islamist or racially supremacist, is not only an affront to the values on which the U.K. is built, but also disincentivizes the radical individual from voicing opinions publicly. Should someone report an individual expressing radical views (which is often the case,) the U.K. security services can, on the basis of that tip-off, go about profiling that individual, determining what level of threat is posed, and whether to conduct more intrusive surveillance, which would require a court order.

Likewise, should an individual with a dangerous mind-set seek to acquire the tools of terrorism, be they plans to target critical infrastructure, precursor materials for bomb-making or weapons/ammunition, there are a number of layered trip-wires that would alert the security services. Again, this may sound counter-intuitive, but the trip-wires work, as evidenced by the 535 people who were interceptedin Europe for terrorism-related conduct in 2013

One problem for the security services are the so-called ‘clean-skins,’ self-radicalized individuals who travel to Syria and Iraq without being known to the security services and who have no association with known extremists. That does not make them uniquely dangerous; what makes them, as well as known extremists, dangerous is their being able to acquire the means of terrorism on their return to the U.K., using techniques they have learnt abroad. And that is where the security services are, and should be, focusing – both on the individuals who return and their intentions.

Detecting radicalized individuals is difficult, due both to the limits placed on government and the fact that detection is largely up to their being reported to authorities by family members or friends.

But the assumption that nothing is being done about radicalized individuals in the U.K. is quite wrong. Ultimately, there are limits to what the government can do in response to radicalization, but those limits dissipate as thoughts turn into actions. By following this model, the security services able to anticipate and prevent attacks, while the values which we seek to protect from the likes of IS or Al-Qaida remain unmolested by these challenging times.

Broadening the scope of government intervention won’t counter would-be IS sympathizers. Radicalization cannot be prevented by overt action, and there is a significant danger in assuming that it can.

Simon Palombi is a consultant for the International Security department at Chatham House and a consultant for an infrastructure management company assisting with political risk, border security and protective security (counter-terrorism) issues.

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