Her Majesty’s Big Brother

Britain has plenty of good reasons to stop its citizens from fighting in Syria, but asking mothers to inform on their sons won't work.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Last week, Britain launched a nationwide campaign to keep its youngsters from joining the jihad in Syria. In addition to enhancing collaboration between police and charitable organizations, including mosques, British women are being encouraged to inform on family members that might be thinking about shipping off to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Moved forward by New Scotland Yard, Britain’s metropolitan police service, the campaign is one of several preventative measures outlined in the country’s newly updated "CONTEST" counterterrorism strategy. Earlier measures proved controversial, with critics arguing that the "PREVENT" strand of the strategy did more to vilify the British Muslim community than aid the fight against terrorism. This latest iteration is already kicking up a similar storm of controversy — for better or for worse.

The phenomenon of British nationals traveling overseas to participate in foreign conflicts is not particularly new. In the 1930s, for example, George Orwell went off to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Then in the 1990s, a number of British nationals went to fight in Bosnia, mostly on the Bosniak side. Since the war broke out in Syria, at least 400 Britons are said to have joined the fray. But while the Syrian experience may seem like just the latest episode in a familiar historical pattern, there are ways in which it is actually quite different. Unlike previous fighters venturing abroad, the foreigners battling Assad in Syria are, by and large, not fighting simply to overthrow a tyrannical regime. The radicalism they promote — made clear in their public discourse and by their track record when they actually take control of a particular area — is an end in and of itself.

Most of these fighters are not interested in returning to Britain. They are fighting to establish their version of an Islamic state — and they intend to live there once it’s in place. But if any of them eventually return — as inevitably many of them will — they will come back far more radicalized than when they left. It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that some of them might refocus their rage on the British state.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how the British government’s latest tactic is going to address the problem. For it to work, parents would have to both be aware of their children’s growing radicalization before it’s too late, and trust that British authorities can help them defuse the situation. Those assumptions are questionable. For example, the family of Abdullah Deghayes, a Libyan-British teenager who was recently killed in Syria, insisted that they discovered his intent to join the fight against Assad only after he was gone. Moreover, both the boy’s father and an aunt said they would not have reported him to the police. As far as they were concerned, Deghayes traveled to Syria to help the Syrian people, not become a terrorist at the hands of al Qaeda militants.

At the root of the British government’s initiative is an expectation that families will trust the police and criminal justice system to protect their sons (and also some daughters), whom they admit may be vulnerable. At present, however, no such atmosphere of trust exists between communities — in particular between the Muslim communities that are the target of the initiative, and security services. Scotland Yard has made it clear that families contacting the police would have full confidentiality, but it is hard to believe that the security services would keep such a pledge if they felt public safety was at risk.

A significant portion of that trust deficit stems from another part of the government’s strategy for dealing with the radical threat coming from Syria. A rather draconian law from the post-9/11 War on Terror allows the home secretary to arbitrarily strip nationals of citizenship, so long as it doesn’t result in their becoming stateless. In recent months, the British government, however, has even tried to remove the statelessness exception, inviting backlash from human rights organizations in the process.

The House of Lords rejected the amendment in the end, but significant parts of Britain’s Muslim community got the message: If their children venture abroad, they risk never being able to return. This is not actually true — hundreds have travelled, while only dozens have had their citizenship revoked. Nonetheless many believe that if a young British Muslim goes to Syria, he or she is guilty until proven innocent. That perception does not help matters.

There are, of course, very good reasons for the British government to discourage travel to Syria. The risk of radicalization is real. Nevertheless, this particular strategy is deeply flawed. It will not encourage families to enlist the services of the state in order to help young people, even if that is the government’s intent. Instead, it will simply increase the trust deficit between authorities and the most vulnerable segments of the British population — precisely those segments that are most susceptible to radicalization.

There are several steps that ought to be taken immediately. When British citizens travel abroad to war-torn countries like Syria, they ought to be made aware that while they are likely to be debriefed upon their return, they will not be automatically investigated for criminal activity. Such debriefings should be compulsory, and should always precede criminal investigation if it is deemed necessary. Moreover, the practice of denationalizing British citizens needs to end. If a citizen is suspected of involvement in terrorist activity, he or she ought to face trial — not be stripped of citizenship. If deemed to be a flight risk, passports should be temporarily confiscated. As for Britons abroad, citizenship ought to remain inviolable until a proper investigation can be carried out with due process.

Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly said that being British was a privilege, rather than a right. But actually, it is a right for every citizen — and not one that ought to be summarily usurped by an arbitrary decision by the home secretary. Beyond flouting basic human rights standards, such a practice all but ensures that those who are having second thoughts about being in Syria will remain there regardless. Certainly, those who are rendered stateless will be even more vulnerable to radicalization. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald of River Glaven has said, this latest judicial proposal "associates the United Kingdom with a policy beloved of the world’s worst regimes during the 20th century."

While the conflict in Syria rages, it will invariably attract some sympathetic fighters from abroad. Given the brutality of the Assad regime, this is exceedingly predictable. Many will go for purely humanitarian reasons; others will engage in martial actions. Both camps will go because of a fe
eling that the international community is doing next to nothing to address the conflict in Syria — and they will be correct in that assessment. The longer the fighting drags on, the more fuel will have been added to the radical narrative.

Until a solution can be found, one hopes that it will only be George Orwell’s book on foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, that Britons cite in relation to the Syrian war — and not 1984, another one of his works that comes to mind when government’s ask their citizens to inform on one another.

H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London.


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