How to treat returning jihadis

An ISIS fighter surrenders to Iraqi soldiers in Mosul. Picture: Carol Guzy

An ISIS fighter surrenders to Iraqi soldiers in Mosul. Picture: Carol Guzy - Credit: Zuma Press/PA Images

Following the death of Anna Campbell -the first British woman to die fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Syria- YASMIN ALIBHAI BROWN asks how we should treat the 'jihadis' who return home.

How very sad that Anna Campbell, a young British woman, has been killed in Afrin, northern Syria.

She went off to join the Kurdish Women's Protection Unit, a fearless, awesome battalion. They took on Isis and pushed them back from some areas with support from the West. Turkey is now trying to crush the resistors. Campbell's grieving father says she was, 'idealistic, serious. She wanted to create a better world'.

Let me ask some awkward questions: What if she'd survived and come back home? How would she have been received? Would she have been treated as a 'terrorist'? Would she have been sent to prison?

That is what happens to Muslims when they return to the UK from Iraq, Syria and Libya. In 2016, the parents of two 19-year-old British Muslim friends contacted me. I didn't know them.

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They pleaded with me to talk to the young men who were being drawn into the Isis cult.

I tried. The first meetings were terrifying and tense. The men seemed to be in a state of ideological intoxication. Then one of them learnt his gran was terminally ill. All that bravado fell away. They told me they felt lost in their homes and outside.

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They wanted, like Anna Campbell, to help Syrians by fighting Assad: 'Only Isis can beat him.'

Gran's death brought sobriety. They are both now employed and one is married. And a note to state apparatchiks – I will protect these identities.

This example shows how wrong it is to assume 'jihadis' are all monsters who deserve no understanding. A large number of men and women who went out are indeed evil or pitiless puritans. However, others are idealists, humanitarians or naïve adventurers, or unhappy, even severely mentally disturbed.

Our crude defence secretary Gavin Williamson, and Tory minister for prisons, Rory Stewart, want them all killed. Informed experts, particularly in the European Union, are thankfully, more rational and humane.

According to Europol and other sources, around 6,000 of them have gone out since 2014. A good number joined Isis. A third of them are thought to have died. More than 100 of them are women and an unknown number of children have also been caught up in this 'war'.

Richard Barrett, a former British diplomat and intelligence specialist wrote a report on this complex phenomenon in 2017. He found that states were ill-prepared for such people who were desperately seeking the impossible. The European Union Times estimates that approximately 1,000 Muslim Europeans are on their way back from the battle zones. They can't be shoved into a Guantanamo Bay-type hellhole. Let them get scrupulously fair trials and proper rehabilitation. This will require almost superhuman forbearance.

In 2015, The New Yorker journalist, Ben Taub, investigated some smart European responses to returning jihadis. The city of Aarhus in Denmark, is adapting a programme designed to deal with soccer hooliganism.

Allan Aarslev, the police commissioner in charge, told Taub: 'Of course, as a policeman, I would like to prosecute some of these people.' But he concluded that without solid evidence, 'it's better to help them'. Imagine the tabloid hysteria if that happened in the UK?

To date, there has been only one major attack by a European returnee, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, though other plots have been intercepted. Many young firebrands are full of regret. One quote in Taub's article speaks for many: 'I want to take my life back and provide for my family. I want to go back to study and look for work. This is the only thing that interests me now.' With help they could do that. And, more usefully, deter future jihadis.

Barrett believes: 'They're probably still quite highly motivated to do something when they come back disillusioned... so they are potentially exploitable for a better purpose.'

People feel alienated when they can't belong. Evidence shows European Muslims are becoming less alienated. A study from the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, reported by Bloomberg, delivered some unexpectedly positive findings.

About three quarters of the Muslims born in Germany use German as their first language; 46% of foreign-born Muslims are also German-speaking. Employment figures for Muslim Germans is the same as for non-Muslims – but the former are paid less, which is unacceptable.

In France Muslim children are staying on in school longer and becoming more open. In both Germany and France 78% of Muslims have regular contact with non-Muslims. It is lower in the UK (68%) and Austria (62%). And migrants across countries report feeling a close connection to the countries they live in.

In several European countries – Germany, France and Denmark particularly – well-funded psychological work is being done with radicalised Muslims.

The UK prefers punitive measures, another difference between them and us. Returning jihadis must be saved from themselves. The EU is not like the USA and this is its chance to prove that.

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