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Britain’s Radical Challenge

The threat of British jihadists can't be an excuse for the country to abandon its foundational principles.


In a video released this week, a masked jihadist stands over Steven Sotloff, sentencing the American journalist to death for what he termed as President Barack Obama’s "arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State," also known as ISIS. The jihadist spoke with a clear and unmistakable British accent — and threatened that his next victim would be another British citizen, aid worker, David Cawthorne Haines. Britain is therefore faced with the ghoulish spectacle of British citizens traveling thousands of miles to Syria, only to behead other Britons.

The news of Sotloff’s killing comes less than 24 hours after British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain’s new counterterrorism approach. The first and most obvious point of the prime minister’s speech is that the Islamic State (IS) is a threat: The videos of the executions of Sotloff and James Foley, another American journalist, were aired from territory that IS controls, after having beaten back the Iraqi and Syrian armies, as well as more moderate Syrian rebel forces. The second is that British citizens are at risk from IS in two different ways. Firstly, they can be targeted directly, in IS-held territory, as Haines himself was. And secondly, they can be targeted directly by one of their own, like the British radical who threatened to kill Haines. It’s homegrown radical Islamism, on foreign soil, that’s threatening Britons at home and abroad.

The prime minister asked the House of Commons to have an open debate on his government’s plan to tackle these problems. Some items were less controversial than others: It has been clear that Britain would support the U.S. airstrikes on IS positions in Iraq, and officially back the U.S. policy of pushing for a broad-based Iraqi government that could roll back the threat of IS.

But other items were more controversial, and they relate precisely to the challenge represented by the British member of IS in the Sotloff video. What Britain will do about British nationals that join the Islamic State — or indeed, other fanatic Islamist groups — is an issue that has troubled different parts of British society, and the state itself, for quite some time. Can their citizenship rights be somehow suspended in order to battle that threat?

Previously, the British counterterrorism establishment was focused on fanatics inside the country. In 2005, that was the core consideration of the "Prevent" strategy, which concentrated on Muslim Britons who may be targeted by fanatic Islamist preachers for recruitment. British security services remain concerned about that kind of threat, and the security level has been raised recently nationwide to reflect an ongoing apprehension.

But now Britain must also contend with a new threat. At least 500 British nationals have traveled to Syria and Iraq, and the security establishment at large harbors grave concerns about the impact of that experience upon them. The fear is that these nationals will travel to these conflict zones, train with fanatic Islamists, and then return to Britain to conduct attacks on home soil.

It is not clear how many British nationals have such intentions. So far, those that travel to Syria and Iraq appear to be doing so for purposes that relate far more to the political situation in that part of the world, rather than grievances against Britain. The Britons and other Europeans who have already returned home have not been involved in nefarious activity — yet. Nevertheless, given the global ambitions of ISIS, it cannot be ruled out that Britons indoctrinated with the group’s ideology will return home to conduct such attacks.

Cameron made it clear he took that possibility very seriously, as well he should. Indeed, that is a key component of the prime minister’s job description — to maintain the security of the realm. But the response of his government ought to be one based on prudence and care, rather than relying on knee-jerk responses. His speech in the Commons on Monday saw signs of both approaches being considered.

The prime minister identified two main "gaps" in Britain’s security arsenal — the capacity of the police to take away passports from people at the British border (presumably whether they are leaving or entering), and to exclude British nationals from returning to Britain. The first of these policies is relatively uncomplicated, but the second raises incredibly serious questions about Britain’s approach to counterterrorism, and the fundamental challenges it presents to our legal system.

A passport, it must be recognized, is not the property of the bearer. It belongs to the queen, as the head of the United Kingdom, and is provided to citizens with the express purpose of declaring, in her name, that they be allowed to "pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary." If a passport is seized, whether upon entry or departure, it ought not to be simply at the arbitrary discretion of the state without judicial review. If such measures are temporary, they may be considered to be justifiable, on a case-by-case basis.

It was Cameron’s second point, however, that raises far more questions — and which raised the ire of many of his own party members in Parliament. While it is, as he noted, "abhorrent" that British members of ISIS would be able to return to Britain, posing a threat to national security, the response cannot be to simply exclude them from their own country. If they renounce British citizenship, that is another issue entirely — but if they maintain their citizenship and are intent on committing a crime, the British state is legally obliged to allow them to enter and then to arrest them and subject them to the due process of the law.

Representatives from all three of the major British parties critiqued Cameron’s suggestion that the government could block British citizens from entering the country. Labour Party head Ed Miliband, had his queries, though carefully stated, while Sir Menzies Campbell of the Liberal Democrats far more openly expressed his view that such a policy would run afoul of Britain’s international legal obligations.

That’s not a subjective viewpoint — according to experts, it’s a legal obligation. Indeed, even former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who served in that position until this summer, noted in the Commons that the suggestion to bar British nationals from the country not only offended principles of "international law, it would actually offend basic principles of our own common law as well."

Of course, the Islamic State rejects the trappings of international and common law, not to mention the modern state and the notion of citizenship. Britain, on the other hand, is built upon those principles. The country stands in the midst of a potential trauma — the idea that Britons could be guilty of plotting from overseas to wreak violent havoc upon their country is a type of treason the country has not seen in a long while. But the response to this threat is not to slowly chip away at the bedrock of what makes Britain great. On the contrary, it is precisely at times like these that it’s more important than ever to uphold Britain’s values to their fullest, without compromise.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  Twitter: @hahellyer

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