In the last few days, the British media has reported that some British jihadists in Syria have had second thoughts about their jihad and now want to ‘come home’.
In response several experts have suggested that these jihadists should be ‘de-radicalised’, that they could become ‘could become an extremely powerful tool in the fight against the Islamic State’, and that it ‘would seem sensible to encourage British and other foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State or other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and now realise that this was wrong, to come home’.
Legal arguments aside, here are five key reasons why known jihadists should not be welcomed back so hastily:
1. Moral hazard:
If we welcome these jihadists back, this creates a severe moral hazard and dangerous precedent. In future conflicts (and there will be future conflicts), British jihadists may be less deterred from going to fight if they expect lenient treatment on their return. By being tough now we can deter other British Muslims from taking up arms in future.
If we pardon and welcome back individuals who joined organisations whose over-riding aim is to kill, behead and drive out all those Muslims whom they regarded as deviants while we simultaneously hunt down those few extremists involved in the murder of white western hostages, this sends a terrible message to both Muslim moderates and our enemies about our priorities and double-standards.
For too long, the British state has coddled Islamist extremists while repeatedly stabbing moderate Muslim democrats and liberals, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in the back. If British jihadists have any involvement, however tangentially, in the murder of Muslims or in the perpetration of war-crimes against Syrians of any faith, we have a moral duty to bring them to justice.
Applying double standards depending on who these jihadists have killed will only leave us weaker in the long run.
3. We should be more sceptical of jihadist claims:
Although some British jihadists now reportedly claim, a la Montague Withnail, that they went on jihad ‘by mistake’, they were never democrats or liberals. On the contrary, most are sectarian bigots who knowingly volunteered their skills to the most hardline jihadist groups available.
Most also did not, as one jihadist reportedly claimed, ‘only want to fight the regime’; instead the organisations they overwhelmingly joined totalitarian groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra that only sought to replace secular Shia oppression with fundamentalist Sunni oppression.
It is also deeply significant that these jihadists only had ‘second thoughts’ when their leaders asked them to stop chopping off Shia and Christian heads and to start chopping off Sunni heads instead. So much for them being humanitarians who ended up on the wrong side by accident.
4. We need to stop treating jihadists like victims:
These killers and would-be killers who are now petitioning to come back to the UK are not victims; they were grown-up men (and a few women) who made their own informed decision to travel to Syria and join groups that they knew were committing murder, torture, rape and untold other crimes.
The real victims are the many innocent Syrians who they killed, maimed and bereaved in pursuit of their grim seventh century Utopia; a troupe of well-meaning George Orwells they are not.
We should reserve our sympathy for those who deserve it; I for one would rather welcome 10 Syrian refugees to the UK than welcome back one blood-stained British jihadist. Let’s also treat jihadists not as wayward children but as grown-ups who can, and should, be held accountable for their decisions and actions.
5. A returned jihadist is for life, not just for Christmas:
To encourage jihadists to come back to the UK in the hope that they can be de-radicalised and turned against their former comrades is to gamble with our nation’s security.
All existing ‘de-rad’ programmes have high failure rates; and for every ex-jihadist who has reformed and denounced his former ideology, there are dozens of others who cling to all or part of their former ideals.
Moreover, every jihadist who we allow back to the UK will require not only many years of expensive one-to-one ‘de-radicalisation’ programming (de-rad specialists typically charge hundreds of pounds per session) but also lifelong surveillance by the security services.
Precedents further suggest that even those who don’t seek to commit attacks themselves are liable to radicalise a new generation of British Muslims with their tales of how the great Syrian and Iraqi jihad against Shias, Christians, Yazidis, secularists, democrats, liberals and women was pure, noble and glorious until Sunnis started fighting Sunnis.
Should the British people really be expected to pay so heavily for the stupidity of so few, as well as bear the risk of future attacks?
What is the alternative, you may ask? One alternative is that we leave these journalist-beheading, woman-enslaving, self-pitying narcissists to stew in the bloody mess that they have created; having enthusiastically thrown themselves into the Hobbesian jungle of Syria, a few more years ‘trapped’ between the vengeful Syrian government and their erstwhile fundamentalist friends would be an apt educational experience for these latter-day Robespierres.
We are under no moral obligation at all to rescue these blood-stained criminals from their own overdue Gotterdammerung or to sympathise with their self-inflicted plight. Alternatively, if our jihadist compatriots wish to demonstrate they are truly sorry for the suffering they have brought on others, instead of clamouring for a swift return to the welcoming bosom of the British welfare state, they could instead volunteer for a few years of helping out in the squalid refugee camps of Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan where millions of their victims now live in misery and destitution.
Indeed, such is the continuing narcissism of British jihadists that their demands for consequence-free repatriation has been made without a squeak of apology to their Syrian Muslim ‘brothers’ (and ‘sisters’, of course, Syrian non-Muslims) who they have knowingly, joyously, repeatedly de-homed, dispossessed and bereaved over these last few years.
Perhaps after our jihadist compatriots have passed through such a period of genuine penance and self-reflection, we can then re-consider allowing them to return to the UK, to face trial for their crimes as needed.
However, to welcome these jihadists home prematurely or without them displaying sincere evidence of regret or a willingness to mend their ways is to betray our deepest values, to jeopardise our nation’s security, and to spit in the faces of their many Syrian victims, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
James Brandon is the former Director of Research and Communications at the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism thinktank. He now works for a security consultancy in Singapore. Follow him at @thejamesbrandon