There has been a lot of handwringing in the UK media about what might happen if some of the “British” jihadists come home from Syria and Iraq with deadly new skills and an even greater appetite for killing infidels. It is invariably accompanied by earnest headscratching about ways of dissuading other young fanatics from towns like Bradford and Birmingham from going off to join the jihad.
Little or none of it examines what might practically be done right now to neutralize the danger from those who are already members of the various jihadi militias.
There are two things that could and should be done.
The first, and in theory the simplest prophylactic act, would be to make it difficult for them to come back to the UK undetected.
That would require a level of efficient border control that Theresa May, like her predecessors, has so far been unable or unwilling to put in place.
It is true that the people who check passports at the UK’s airports now wear smart uniforms instead of slovenly civvies, and that they belong to an organization that has been rebranded with a butch new name (UK Border Force). But, despite these face lifts and the electronic chip in new UK passports, they and the Home Office in general are unable to monitor who comes in and out of the country.
The Home Office doesn’t even know, for example, how many people have overstayed visas or many migrants have arrived in the UK over any particular time – rather than making an accurate count of the latter it prefers to guess on the basis on small samples taken from selected ports and airports.
If Mrs May can tear herself away from her scheming for the Tory leadership, she should consider putting all known and likely jihadist volunteers on the immigration officers database. This would require extensive coordination with MI5 and Special Branch – who will have at least some idea of which young British Muslim men of radical bent are really on holiday in Thailand or Turkey, and which ones are really en route to the Levant – and also coordination with various intelligence agencies abroad who will have encountered British jihadis under their noms de guerre.
More effective but also more controversial, and necessarily more discreet, would be an effort to neutralize the threat presented by these jihadis while they are abroad.
The painful truth is that the more of them who achieve martyrdom the better for us and for all the people who would otherwise be their victims should they turn to terrorism back in the West. Jihadis from the UK tend to be among the better educated and more able – and therefore more dangerous – of the militant volunteers that flock to war zones from Afghanistan to Iraq.
It is another reason, perhaps the most important reason, why it is overwhelmingly in Britain’s national interest to support the efforts of the Iraqi government – deeply flawed and unattractive though it undoubtedly is – as it fights to defend Baghdad and to retake territory lost to the ISIS invasion.
Every terrorist carrying a British passport who is killed by Iraqi government forces or by an allied air strike is one who won’t be coming home to murder civilians in tube trains, buses and nightclubs.
If we can give the Iraqi government or other allied forces fighting on their side any intelligence and military advice that will further that goal, we should do so.
While it would be going too far, and indeed would be counterproductive and morally and politically problematic to help the Assad regime find and destroy rebel units with members who carry British passports, the UK could and should give useful, practical support to the relatively moderate rebel forces in Syria that are battling Al Qaeda, ISIS and other groups that are packed with militants from the UK.
For too long the main British reaction to the stream of jihadist volunteers flowing out from the UK has been a feeble, self-flagellating moan about the alienation of young men from certain sadly under-assimilated immigrant communities, and the vulnerability of such young men to extremist preachers and Islamist recruiters.
Those are long-term problems that must be confronted, preferably with the help of community leaders, but it makes sense right now to take advantage of the fact that so many of our “home-grown” jihadis and would-be terrorists are out in the open and fighting in the deserts of the middle east.
There they cannot exploit the protection of peacetime human rights laws or the shelter of family and community. There they are not criminal suspects; they are combatants carrying arms in a war, and uniformed members of a murderous criminal enterprise that has brought chaos and suffering to millions.
Like the small number of Britons who volunteered to join Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS during World War II, any British jihadists who is fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq has put himself beyond the pale.
Our government now has both the duty, and the opportunity, to ensure that these deadly fanatics are unable to come back to wreak terror in the UK.