What happens to Brits who’ve returned from fighting for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq? Most would expect that they’d immediately fall into the criminal justice system, and wouldn’t then emerge for a very long time. Today it emerged that Home Secretary Sajid Javid had dropped Britain’s blanket opposition to the death penalty so that two Isis fighters from the group dubbed the ‘Beatles’ could be sent to the US. But in most cases, the question isn’t where someone will face justice, but whether they can face justice at all.
We know that there are hundreds of people who have returned from fighting for Islamic State. But what is less well-known is what happens when these individuals get back to Britain. A common assumption is that they go from Turkish detention centre to British jail, where they can regret their terrorist trip at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. But this assumption is wrong.
There are those who have clear evidence of wrongdoing against them, such as those ‘Beatles’ fighters. But then there are those who only have a suspicion of wrongdoing that is not backed up by any evidence.
I saw one such case when I visited three Brits detained in Turkey on suspicion of terrorism last year. I arrived at the detention centre in Izmir expecting to meet three angry young men, only to be told that I would in fact be interviewing a mother and her very young children.
These weren’t stereotypical jihadis caught on the border between Turkey and Syria, and awaiting the full might of the criminal justice system when they finally arrived back in Britain. In fact, when Nasra, as I’ll call her, and her children got back to London, they went home, rather than to a custody suite. This little family is far less unusual than you might think: in fact, very few suspected jihadis are convicted of any offence after they return to the UK from Syria or Iraq. Many of them are left to get on with their lives as before.
Nasra is British and was arrested by the Turkish authorities as she came back over the border from Syria with her dual Turkish-British national husband and children. They detained her on suspicion of terrorism and endangering national security, and spent a year trying to deport her. The husband, Oktay, was cleared in a Turkish court, but Nasra hasn’t been through the Turkish justice system at all. Initially, she refused to talk to officials, but once she discovered that even after she left the detention centre, she would still have to sign in every day, she grew more enthusiastic about deportation. It took months, though, for a DNA test to prove that her youngest child, who she held throughout our interview, was hers so that the Home Office would permit her to return. When we met, she had been there just short of a year, and was nearly on her way back to London.
You might think that being photographed, as Nasra was, on the Syrian border would be enough for the British courts to convict her of joining Islamic State. But British law does not currently consider travelling to Syria to be a criminal offence in itself, and there is no other evidence against this family. Nasra and her husband claim that they were actually set up: their story is that they were stopped while driving in Kilis, which is close to the border and has been witness to a number of arrests of returning jihadis. The police discovered that Nasra’s visa was out of date, and arrested them both.
Then, she told me, they were driven to the border by soldiers. ‘They rounded up everybody, took us to – with guns and everything – the border and then they took a picture of us’. ‘They took us to a big field,’ claimed Oktay in a separate conversation. ‘And they told us to get onto our knees in a form of being captured.’
Turkey hardly has the best record on human rights at the moment, so it’s difficult to know who is telling the truth. Nasra’s account was confused and taking her back through key moments turned up slightly different versions each time. Initially she claimed that me asking about the Syrian border was the first she’d even heard that she was suspected of terrorism, though she later contradicted that, as did her husband.
Even if there were stronger evidence that Nasra had definitely been in Syria, which she denied vehemently, such as mobile phone records showing she was in Raqqa, this would not be enough to convict her. She was detained as part of a larger group who returned quickly to Britain as its members did not try to fight the deportation order. The Home Office is tight-lipped about what happened to these alleged associates, but recently Security Minister Ben Wallace told the House of Commons that only 40 of those 400 who had come back had been successfully prosecuted for ‘direct action they’ve carried out in Syria’.
So what happens to the rest of them? The British intelligence services do not have the resources to monitor all 400 people who’ve come back from Syria. They do, however, assess that a significant number of these people no longer pose a security risk. For those that do, there are Temporary Exclusion Orders, which might involve someone’s passport being taken away, or their re-entry to the UK being conditional on complying with the Prevent de-radicalisation programme. But that’s it. If there isn’t enough evidence to convict someone, then they have a right to a free life.
The government could change the law to make travelling to Syria a criminal offence in itself, as is the case in Australia, something Javid has already hinted at. Given investigators are hardly going to be able to collect CCTV evidence of someone in Homs, this is the only option really open to ministers. Beyond that, they have to hope that either Nasra really was stitched up, having merely overstayed her visa, or that any longings for jihad that she and the others deported back to this country once held have now evaporated.