Around half of British nationals who have gone to fight for Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISLI) have returned, a new report has revealed.
According to figures compiled in February this year, of the 850 fighters to have left Britain, 425 have come back.
Those who have not are variously listed as remaining in the so-called caliphate or have been stopped in, deported from or watch-listed by Turkey.
The report, released by Soufan Group, a security intelligence consultancy based in Washington DC, describes returnees as falling broadly into five categories, each presenting a varying levels of risk. They are:
Those who left early or only after a short stay and were never particularly integrated with ISIS.
Those who stayed longer, but did not agree with everything ISIS was doing.
Those who had no qualms about their role or ISIS tactics, but decided to move on.
Those who were fully committed to ISIS but forced out by circumstances, such as loss of territory or were captured and were sent to their home countries.
Those who were sent abroad by ISIS to fight for the caliphate elsewhere.
Amid news the UK is facing an “intense” challenge from terrorism, with head of MI5 Andrew Parker admitting there is “more terrorist activity coming at us, more quickly”, the authorities have insisted they have strategies in place for ISIS returnees.
Max Hill, who acts as the government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, told Radio 4 last week that the UK is already equipped with an armoury of legal powers to address the influx.
He told the Today programme: “There are a range of measures already in existence which can be brought to bear – starting with deprivation of UK citizenship for those with dual nationalities. Moving through temporary exclusion orders for those who are intending to return whose return can be delayed while the authorities prepare to make decisions of whether to prosecute or to divert individuals away from prosecution.
“We’re told we already have a significant number already back in this country who have previously gone to Iraq and Syria. That means the authorities have looked at them hard and have decided that they do not justify prosecution and really we should be looking towards reintegration and moving away from any notion that we’re going to lose a generation to this trouble.
“It’s not a decision that M15 will have taken lightly. I’m sure they will have looked intensely at each individual on return but they have left space for those who travelled out of a sense of naivety and possibly with some brainwashing along the way, possibly in their mid-teens and who return in a state of utter disillusionment and we have to leave space for those individuals to be diverted away from the criminal courts.
“We don’t want to downplay the fact that some of those who travelled will have committed the most serious criminal offences and we have offences in our general crime statutes as well as under terrorism law which have the territorial reach to cover serious criminality in Syria and Iraq, in any case where there is evidence of that then there only one place to go and that is to a criminal court.”
Richard Barratt, a former MI6 global counter-terrorism director said: “It’s not so much a question of what to do when they come back but to understand why they came back, to understand a bit about the atmosphere and environment to which they are returning and if they are received as heroes or people who have done a great thing. Clearly that makes them more dangerous than if they’re rejected by society. So the attitude of society on return is very important.
“Why did they go and why did they come back? Many of them went to join something, join something new that looked bright and attractive and satisfied some of their needs in their lives and probably found that didn’t exist out there, so came back highly disillusioned and also somebody going off to join the Islamic State is not likely initially to be somebody going off to train to be a domestic terrorist. They seem to me to be two different motivations.
“The reasons people went are highly individual… when they come back this is the great task for the authorities to assess each one almost on an individual basis of what sort of threat they are likely to pose, not just immediately but of course in the longer term.
Barratt says that irrespective of the fact that Raqqa has fallen: “You can destroy the territory but not the idea and the Islamic State has been very keen to promulgate the idea that territorial losses are fairly insignificant, it’s the will to fight that’s important and returnees should continue to have that will.”
Barratt’s thoughts are echoed in the report, which states: “It is highly likely that even as the territorial caliphate shrinks and is increasingly denied an overt presence, its leadership will look to supporters overseas, including returnees, to keep the brand alive.”
Speaking to the New York Times, Laith Alkhouri, a director at Flashpoint, a business risk intelligence company in New York that tracks militant threats and cyberthreats warns : “It only takes one or two fighters to slip through the cracks back to Europe – armed with militant knowledge or even instructions by their handlers – to wreak havoc and bring ISIS back to the TV screens.”