John Woodcock MP: Government should make it harder for Jihadis to evade the law when they return to Britain
Labour MP John Woodcock writes ahead of his adjournment debate today on ‘British Jihadis returning from Iraq and Syria’.
The government likes to talk tough about what should happen to the estimated 850 British men and women who travelled to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh’s bloody slaughter in the name of its perversion of Islam.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson no doubt struck a chord with millions when he told the Daily Mail that he would rather see all those lured to Jihad by the extremists’ promise of a Caliphate killed rather than allowed to return to Britain. More experienced ministerial colleagues were deeply unimpressed with the new secretary of state’s unrealistic bravado (‘Are we going to set up machine guns at Heathrow and execute them when they step off the plane?’ one asked me).
But even the government’s official line strongly suggests a grisly fate awaits every returning Jihadi. Security minister Ben Wallace’s response to me in the House of Commons last October was typical, saying ‘when anyone returns about whom we have a suspicion that they have been fighting for any group or committed a crime overseas, they can expect to be arrested and questioned by the appropriate police forces.’
We are not just talking about a handful of extremists. The government’s official public estimate is that around half of the estimated c. 850 UK-linked individuals of national security concern who travelled to Iraq or Syria to fight for Daesh have now returned.
So are more than 400 of these returning Jihadis in jail or going through the court system? Well, we don’t know because the government is will not release the figures despite repeated requests from members of parliament and the media.
There is strong demand from the public to know how many Jihadis are currently free in British communities. People are understandably infuriated by the prospect of these men and women escaping justice despite having been prepared to fight British troops in the name of a sickeningly evil cause. They are unnerved that these traitors may potentially now be able to import back to British streets brutal killing techniques learnt on the battlefield.
And the government must know the figure. It is simple to collate and they were prepared to give it back in May 2016, when Advocate General Lord Keen responded to a parliamentary question saying that there had at that point been 54 successful prosecutions of returnees from Iraq and Syria with 30 more cases ongoing.
The refusal to update the number of prosecutions is fuelling the suspicion that in fact only a fraction of returnees are being charged because it can be so difficult to amass sufficient evidence that is admissible in an open court. In the vast majority of cases there might be no credible alternative reason for someone to have visited Syria or Iraq during the conflict, but hard evidence against an individual might be hard to find or based on foreign intelligence reports.
Some claim this obfuscation is based on a laudable need to maintain a deterrent effect rather than desire to save the government from embarrassment; that it is better to remain vague because future generations are less likely to be deterred from following the next call to global Jihad if they know how few of their brothers and sisters have been jailed for previous attempts.
This surely grossly underestimates the sophistication of the Islamists’ communication capacity, a vital part of its arsenal in its war against liberal democracies. If British justice is falling short, Daesh, al-Qaida and whatever future strain of this evil perversion emerges will be able to get that message out to potential recruits. Until recently their agile and disciplined communications arm has been running rings round our own agencies’ attempts to deliver counter-extremist messages.
Rather than attempting to hide the weakness of our laws, let’s strengthen them and place the burden of proof on the terrorist. In my adjournment debate this evening I will be urging the government to consider implementing the terror travel ban approach introduced in Australia, where citizens have faced a ten-year jail term simply for going to a designated terror hot spot unless they can show a legitimate reason for travelling.
The independent review of terror legislation in Australia has just recommended that the declared areas offence is extended for a further five years. The government should follow our ally’s lead and make it harder for battle-trained Jihadis to evade the law here in Britain too.
John Woodcock is the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness