My interview on the Today programme on Thursday 19th October



Justin Webb (JW): How great is the risk that the killers who flee from the defeat of Islamic State in Raqqa come back to Europe, to Britain, and kill people here? The battle for Raqqa is over and Islamic State lost. The centre-piece of what they thought was going to be their caliphate is gone, there’s no doubt about that, but plenty of them survived. The European Union security commissioner, Julian King, told us yesterday that about 8,000 of them might try to come to Europe. Many of them are of course European passport holders, some are British. So after Raqqa, what now?

Max Hill QC is on the line, he’s the Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation and Richard Barrett is as well, former global counter terrorism director of MI6, now director of the think tank the Global Strategy Network. Good morning to you both.

Richard Barrett (RB): Good morning.

Max Hill QC (MHQC): Good morning.

JW: Can I start with you Richard Barrett, how ready are we to deal with an upsurge of people coming back from Raqqa and from other parts of the area, if indeed that is what happens now?

RB: Well some of them are back already so I suppose the security services are already dealing with that problem, and Andrew Parker said just the day before yesterday that he’d never seen so many terrorist threats out there..

JW: He’s the boss of MI5?

RB: Indeed, indeed, and he no doubt reflects the return of some of the foreign fighters, and we believe about half of the 850 or so British citizens or residents who went to join the Islamic State are now back home. But it’s not so much a question of what to do when they come back as to understand why they came back I think, and to understand a little bit about the atmosphere, the environment to which they’re returning. And if they are received as sort of heroes, people who have achieved a great thing, then clearly that makes them more dangerous than if they’re rejected by society, so the attitude of society on return I think is very important.

JW: And also of course it’s fair to say, number one, not all of them will necessarily have been involved in violence and, number two, that quite a few of them might be women and even children.

RB: Well indeed, there are now a lot of women and children out there and of course that has a very particular problem, what to do with them when they come back, particularly the younger children. The Islamic State was quite keen to start indoctrinating children even from the age of five, and certainly from the age of fifteen they regarded them as adults and put them into the front line. So you know, from nine on, probably they are quite susceptible now to the teachings of the Islamic State. And women, of course you know women went for many reasons just as men did and there will have to be some examination of what possible threat they may pose as well.

JW: Max Hill, given all of that, do we have in our armoury, as it were, what we need?

MHQC: Well I think when we hear the Director-General of MI5 saying that we face an intense threat, we need an armoury of legal powers which the authorities must use effectively. Fortunately, we do have that armoury. 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 nationals, moving through Temporary Exclusion Orders for those who are intending to return and whose return can be delayed whilst the authorities prepare, moving then through the very effective triage system of Schedule 7 port stops which are going to be important in future, and then moving through to a decision as to whether to prosecute or to divert individuals away from prosecution.

I thought it was particularly interesting what Andrew Parker had to say, and Richard was picking up on it, that we’re told we do have a significant number already back in this country who have previously gone to Iraq and Syria. That means that the authorities have looked at them, and 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 due to this travel.

JW: But that’s fascinating, isn’t it, because there is a school of thought, isn’t there, that looks at these people and thinks well hang on a second they’ve gone to a place where mass murders were being committed, they’ve gone there voluntary, they’ve gone there presumably because they have some enthusiasm for what was happening there, it is odd to treat them as if they have committed no offence. They already in an informal kind of sense, among many people’s thinking, they have committed an offence by going there.

MHQC: And it’s not a decision that MI5 and others would have taken lightly for the very reasons that you give. They, I’m sure, will have looked intensely at each individual on return. But they have left space, and I think they’re right to do so, for those who travelled, it’s beyond our ordinary experience, but who travelled out of a sense of naivety, possibly with some brainwashing along the way, possibly in their mid-teens again as Richard mentioned 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.

JW: That’s a really interesting one isn’t it Richard Barrett, that actually surprising numbers, possibly, of these people are actually not necessarily a danger to us.

RB: Well I think that’s absolutely right, Max makes a very important point, why did they go and then indeed why did they come back? And many of them I think went to join something, join something new, something that looked bright and attractive, and to satisfy some of the needs in their lives and probably found that didn’t exist out there and so came back highly disillusioned. Then 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.

JW: So if we were to do what some people have suggested and just arrest everyone who comes back and find some way, either create an offence in law or else intern people or just make sure that absolutely everyone who comes back is treated in the same way, are you saying that that would be counter-productive, to put it mildly?

RB: I think the reasons that people went are highly individual. Yes indeed there’d be some commonalities between them but generally speaking people make these decisions either because their friends have gone or because they think that it’s a particularly good idea for themselves rather than because of the sort of mass appeal if you like. And so when they come back this is a great task for the authorities, is to assess each one almost on an individual basis of what sort of threat they’re likely to pose. But not just immediately but also of course in the longer term.

JW: And then we’re talking about resources aren’t we Max Hill? I mean, you say we’ve got the armoury, but I suppose the other thing people might wonder about is actually whether we’ve got the resources and the money and the manpower to do it.

MHQC: Absolutely, I’m saying the legal powers are there, it’s for Andrew Parker and others, the Metropolitan Police, to say whether they have the resources. And we should remember, I don’t want to downplay the fact that some of those who’ve 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 reach, have the territorial reach, to cover serious criminality in Syria and Iraq. And in any case where there is evidence of that, then there’s only one place to go and that is to a criminal court in this country to decide on guilt or innocence.

JW: Richard Barrett, this is going to go on for some time isn’t it, this issue?

RB: I believe it is, yes, I think that everybody agrees it’s going to go on for another generation or so.

JW: And irrespective of the fact that Raqqa has fallen and all the rest of it, it’s been helpful presumably but little more.

RB: Yes it’s been helpful but you can get away, you can destroy the territory but not the idea I think, and the Islamic State has been very keen to promulgate the idea that territorial loss is really insignificant, it’s the will to fight that’s important and that returnees should continue to have that will.

JW: Richard Barrett and Max Hill QC as well, thanks both.