Killing all potential returning foreign fighters or wishing them death will not solve the problem of terrorism in the U.K. This kind of rhetoric, supported by defense secretary Gavin Williamson, is emotional and deeply flawed and will not deny returning fighters the ability to sneak in and cause disaster while we sleep.
An estimated 800 British people traveled to territories controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group to join its fight since 2014. Around half of them have already returned to the U.K., following the collapse and defeat of ISIS in its strongholds Raqqa and Mosul, in Syria and Iraq respectively.
In the aftermath of ISIS’ loss of both capitals of its self-declared Islamic Caliphate, some suicide-driven fighters chose to fight until the end and be killed, perhaps with their entire families. Others preferred the ‘fight and run’ tactic and are looking for a safe haven in places such as North Africa and South East Asia. A third group of fighters decided to return where they originally came from.
Fighters returning to the U.K. and other countries in Europe can choose between either surrendering and facing justice, or remaining a “sleeper cell” awaiting further instructions from the ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (no-one has been able to confirm whether he is dead or alive).
The latter option is giving the U.K. disturbing sleepless nights, as the government decides on how to deal with the problem.
Unlike what has been previously suggested, the country could become even more vulnerable to spontaneous terrorist attacks if politicians endorse a killing policy against British-born foreign fighters coming home.
Killing terrorists alone will never harm the foundation that terrorism provides to terrorists. ISISI and its committed fighters may have lost significant battles, but the war goes on without Raqqa and Mosul.
The government and security services must police a system that continues to allow room for young men and women to travel out of the U.K. as foreign fighters. The U.K. government has to lock down any exploited loopholes that facilitate more people from leaving the country to become foreign fighters for ISIS.
If the exit point is not identified and blocked, the process of feeding out ‘Home Grown Foreign Fighters’ to other countries will continue and the issue of returnees will equally continue to rise.
It is garbage out, garbage in.
Every affected EU member state and other international stakeholders should be tasked with generating a system of trust and timely information sharing. This could facilitate early identification of foreign fighter jihadists and their family members who are planning to return to the U.K., and those who have already snuck in through the backdoor.
Only a well designed and implemented Disengagement, Deradicalization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) program can defeat terrorism.
The best of them will tackle the violence, counter the extreme ideology and address the physical and psychological traumas.
DDRR programs cannot be based on short term and quick fix approaches and should not disproportionately reward convicted terrorists in any shape or form. Any program that provides special treatments to returning foreign fighters will attract the wrong results.
Information extracted from participants of a tailored DDRR program enhanced by external intelligence should negatively expose the dynamics of ISIS, its recruitment strategies, narratives and movements around the U.K.
Designed and implemented effectively, these programs have the potential to kill terrorism and turn returning jihadist fighters into a valuable source of information that may lead to the final eradication of ISIS.
David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.