The former head of British counterterrorism suggested this week that the best way to deal with ISIS sympathizers in the UK might be to let them have their wish and travel to the Islamic State, surrendering their passports on the way out. Former Scotland Yard assistant commissioner Robert Quick even recommended providing expatriates with charter flights to get rid of them more efficiently.
This comes as the “7/7” anniversary, commemorating the 2005 subway bombings in London, puts a spotlight on the growing terrorist problem. ISIS is unquestionably ascendant—President Obama was last heard babbling incoherently about winning some sort of philosophical argument with them, in a process that would take 20 to 40 years, instead of defeating them on the battlefield. The “lone wolf” terrorist attack is a looming threat in the minds of British, French, and American citizens.
Thwarting the desires of ISIS sympathizers to join the terror state on its conquered ground has been a core Western policy until now, but given the ongoing success of terrorist recruiting efforts—and the ugly convergence of ISIS with groups like al-Shabaab, which has also been disturbingly successful at recruiting Westerners of Somali extraction—perhaps keeping those recruits bottled up in the adopted countries they hate is only creating more “lone wolf” operatives to worry about.
Also, as the UK Guardian points out, some 700 Brits have successfully decamped for the Islamic State despite government efforts to discourage them. The severe pessimism expressed by Quick is “shared by others who have served at a senior level in Britain’s counterterrorism struggle,” in the Guardian’s estimation.
“You have to think how do you confront it, if you have hundreds or thousands who want to go there and live that life? We should try and convince them not to go. If they want to go, you have to ask the question, are we better off, if they surrender their passports and go? It’s better than them festering away here,” said Quick.
He took the suggestion even further, and it does not sound like he was trying to be outrageous: “Should we say we’ll lay on charter flights to Syria; turn up with your passport and if you are over 18, if this is the life you want, then go?”
“We’re in a worse place, in a more precarious place than ever,” Quick warned.
Ten years ago, we were dealing with relatively small numbers, who traveled mainly to Pakistan. They were engaged in conspiracies that were quite elaborate, involving plotting and communications that could be intercepted. Now we are dealing with large numbers, who have traveled to Syria – we don’t know how many will come back with horrible intent – and the homegrown extremists who are here. We are in a less safe position than we were then, because the world outside our borders is less safe than 10 years ago. There are more people who are motivated, inspired or encouraged to mount these attacks.
He added, regarding radicalization, “what is at the heart of dissatisfaction with UK society, is very little understood.” That seems like a very pointed refutation of President Obama’s new idea about winning a verbal argument with Islamists to convince the kids they are not cool.
Another official quoted by the Guardian, MI5 Director General Andrew Parker, insisted the number of terrorist sympathizers who “decided for whatever twisted reasons to identify their own country as the enemy” remained small… but “the continuing fact that some people, born in the UK, with all the opportunities and freedoms that modern Britain offers, can nonetheless make those sorts of warped choices presents a serious societal and security challenge.”
This sense of official despair also does not speak well for the effectiveness of the surveillance state constructed by Obama in the U.S., since Brits put up with a level of constant surveillance that seems downright creepy to Americans, and people like Quick are admitting it’s not good enough to stop the new, decentralized model of “lone wolf” jihad.
Even if his government decided to offer charter flights to Syria for ISIS recruits, they would probably insist on age-of-consent formalities or parental permission, which would leave some number of young people frustrated that they still cannot answer the call of the caliphate. Allowing terrorist sympathizers to hand over their passports and hit the road would surely be portrayed as a huge victory by enemy propagandists, probably increasing the flow of fresh meat into the Islamist war machine—an unwelcome development for those across the Middle East tasked with fighting it.
On the other hand, if Western nations opened the exit doors for everyone who wants to leave, a number of masks would drop, and dangerous illusions could be shattered. Just how effective have the efforts to thwart Islamist recruiting been—not just in the number of arrests and intercepts, but in terms of the cultural impact on potential recruits, held back by the knowledge that they might be caught and punished, the awareness that hooking up with terror states is criminal and wrong? Are we ready to learn the answer?