A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Mail on Sunday.
Aimen Dean is, arguably, the greatest British hero since World War II. Originally from Saudi Arabia, he went to fight jihad in Bosnia at the tender age of fifteen. Within a few years, he had become a fully-fledged member of Al Qaeda, and travelled all over the world as a jihad tourist. It was Al Qaeda’s East African bombings in 1998 that persuaded him that there could be no theological justification for the massacre of civilians. He contacted MI6, spurning the advances of the Americans and the French, who he did not trust or like. Taking British citizenship, he spent the next eight years, at enormous personal peril, deep in the heart of Al Qaeda, feeding information back to us. Aimen Dean’s courage helped to foil many terrorist plots and saved countless lives.
Compare and contrast Shamima Begum, who also travelled to a war zone when she was fifteen. Even the sight of decapitated heads in dustbins did not shake her belief in the fundamental correctness of the ideal, if not the practice, of a theocratic Islamic State. Her only regret, so it appears, is that the dream became her personal nightmare.
Dean and Begum stand at the two poles of a spectrum. Our nation owes the deepest of gratitude to Dean, and nothing at all to Begum. So, what should be our response, now that Begum asks to be repatriated?
Those seeking to return from Islamic State-controlled territory fall into three categories: the dangerous, the disturbed and the disillusioned. We would be fools to close our eyes to the likelihood that some will return with a fixed determination to bring the horror they wrought on the streets of Raqqa to Britain. Some of the terrorists who perpetrated the Bataclan massacre in 2015 had previously fought in Syria, as had Mehdi Nemmouche, who murdered four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Others will require treatment for mental illness, and may additionally present a threat to us, notwithstanding that they have no present intention of carrying out acts of terrorism. But that is by no means all of those who fall into this group.
Some will have become disillusioned with the brutality and corruption of the only actual, existing Caliphate. Some of these individuals may still cling to the ideal of an Islamic State, while recoiling from the practice. But Quilliam has found that certain members of this group are open to being persuaded that they have a personal obligation to do everything that they can to repair the damage that they have played a part in creating. The President of Quilliam, Noman Benotman, was once a senior member of the Al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He was on first name terms with Osama Bin Laden, and fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Now, he devotes his life to disrupting terrorist groups, all over the world.
Many will say: why should we accept the risk presented by any of these people? The answer, in some cases, is that we shouldn’t. Where it is possible to revoke a former terrorist’s citizenship, that can be done. But where a person has no other nationality, it is not easy to take a step which would leave that individual stateless. Unpopular though this view might be with some, nor should we. Rather, our obligation is to ensure that individuals who have committed, or been complicit, in horrific crimes against humanity, face justice and receive the punishment that they deserve.
Let’s not fool ourselves that women who travelled to join the so-called Caliphate were necessarily merely bystanders to the horror that unfolded in Syria. We must not forget that Shamima Begum travelled to join the Islamic State in 2015, after the genocide of the Yazidi minority and the enslavement of thousands of women, who were auctioned off as sex slaves was well known. Women played a leading role in the mistreatment of those Yazidis, convinced that it was religiously proper for their husbands to purchase and rape female captives. Some played a role in the violent enforcement of the Islamic State’s vicious legal code on a terrified Syrian population. Others incited, online, in the recruitment of further individuals to the Islamic State, or provided support and comfort to fighters. In the final stages of the war, some women were trained to fight.
We should regard these women, presumptively, as war criminals. Building a case against them will not always be easy. However, social and personal media will provide a wealth of evidence against them. This is a generation which obsessively chronicles their interactions, online. There will also be survivors of atrocities who will be desperate to have their stories told. We have an obligation to ensure that they see that justice done.
It is vital that we demonstrate, clearly, that we are not a country that allows its citizens to commit terrible crimes, and then lets them get away with it. When a smirking Islamic State recruit shreds their British passport, that is a declaration that Britain has no authority over them. We must expose that for the lie that it is. A British citizen who commits a crime against innocent people in another country must receive their just deserts.
There are many things that Britain should be exporting, but terrorists are not one of them. We cannot treat the rest of the world as a dumping ground for the worst this country has to offer. When Gary Glitter was released from prison in Vietnam, where he had been convicted of a string of sexual offences against children, he was allowed to return to Britain, and placed on the Sex Offenders Register. He was later tried and convicted of further historic sexual offences against children, and remains in prison. We should treat returning Islamic State Britons in the same manner. That is how a responsible country behaves.
After punishment comes the possibility of deradicalisation and rehabilitation. Aimen Dean was persuaded to work for the British intelligence services after he came to believe that Al Qaeda’s religious argument for the murder of civilians was tissue-thin. Two of my colleagues at Quilliam, one of whom travelled to Afghanistan during his university holidays to fight for the Taliban, have produced a detailed and convincing refutation of the key Islamic State text: the gruesomely-named Jurisprudence of Blood. That is the text which justifies slavery, cannibalism and the use of weapons of mass destruction. Patiently, in prison, they have sat down with extremists and dismantled the ideological basis that underpinned their actions. By this means, some individuals can be transformed from a mortal threat to a potential asset in the struggle against terrorism.
Depressingly, the fall of the Islamic State has not resulted in the final collapse of the networks which first induced British citizens to join it. It has been reported that the banned jihadist group, Al Muhajiroun is once again preaching on the streets of this country. Hate preachers, who spent years proclaiming the virtues of creating a theocratic totalitarian Islamic state, or offering prayers for the ‘mujahideen’, remain in their pulpits. It is certain that organisations like Cage, who advocate for those convicted of terrorist offences, will use the return of those who joined the Islamic State to peddle unjustified tales of grievance towards our country. Although those who have made it back to Britain are currently silent and are not presently being feted by their supporters, tours of universities and community centres may well take place in future. They will be used to promote the ideology that underpinned the so-called Caliphate.
If we are to prevent this country producing more Shamima Begums, it is imperative that we address the culture that made this young woman so receptive to ISIS’s politics in the first place.
None of this is risk-free. Investigating conduct and prosecuting crimes, particularly those which have taken place outside this country, will require resources and expenditure. We will need to keep returnees under surveillance for many years, and that too will cost money. An awful lot of people in this country will understandably feel that British people shouldn’t have to foot that bill.
I don’t blame those who want us to wash our hands of the problem. However we are a nation that justly prides itself in respect for the rule of law. That is one of the things that makes Britain a greater, and strongert country than the Islamic State. Let us demonstrate that this is so.