What can Britain do about the jihadists returning from Syria?
The last time hundreds of Brits went abroad to fight was in the Spanish Civil War. This is very different
AN ESTIMATED 300 British passport holders are currently fighting in the Syrian civil war, nearly all of them jihadists. When the war is over, or when they have become exhausted with the killing, most of them will seek to return to the UK – they are officially ‘British’ after all.
During their ‘tour’ of Syria, those who stick with it and survive will have become trained guerrillas practiced in the use of the latest Saudi-supplied weapons and explosives. Some of them will be brave and determined men. Nearly all of them will subscribe to a universal doctrine of quasi-military struggle, which acknowledges no borders.
Intelligence reports currently appearing in the media suggest that some have been given orders to carry out attacks in the UK.
To give you an idea of the possible scale of the threat, at the height of its campaign in the early 1970s the Provisional IRA, which then effectively controlled large parts of Belfast, Londonderry and the countryside, had “several hundred” members. The so-called Army Council ran the whole organisation with only seven members.
To be sure there were thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of sympathisers and fellow travellers of various types. Those within the Roman Catholic community in Northern Ireland who did not support the IRA’s brutal, romantic nationalism were simply intimidated into silence by gangs of IRA toughs who patrolled the streets of their communities enforcing discipline as they saw it. Ring any bells?
As a country we have actually confronted a similar problem before, now on the fringes of living memory but worth examination. Sadly, the omens are not good.
On 9 January 1937, keen to stem the flow of British volunteers intent on fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Stanley Baldwin’s government announced that it intended to invoke the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870. The Act made it a crime for any British subject to enlist in the military of any foreign power at war with any state with which the UK was at peace.
It’s a bit of a mouthful and was originally designed to stop Britons from fighting for the French in the Franco-Prussian War, embarrassing given that Queen Victoria’s daughter had recently married the Prussian Crown Prince. Baldwin needn’t have bothered: 2,762 of our countrymen, real Brits whose forebears had been present in these offshore islands for many generations, went to Spain to fight for the Republicans (the left wing legitimately elected government) in the various International Brigades. A handful of our countrymen, mainly ardent monarchists, fought for Franco on the Nationalist side.
Recruits for the International Brigades made their way independently to Paris very often without passports, using ‘excursion’ tickets. On arrival at the Gard du Nord, sympathetic taxi-drivers would take them to the Gare d’Austerlitz and the train for Perpignan and the Pyrenees for free – today a well-trodden tourist path.
No successful prosecutions were ever brought because it proved impossible to get proper evidence of enlistment – even in an era without human rights lawyers.
And so it will prove for any law that the government may find the energy and wisdom to pass about veterans of the Syrian conflict, or if it seeks to use current laws on terrorism. For a successful prosecution we need paperwork and witnesses– and there aren’t going to be any.
So, in effect, as veterans of the Syrian conflict drift back to this country over the coming months and years, they will constitute a potential terrorist force the size of the IRA at its peak – and there is little the government can do. MI5 certainly does not have the resources to keep a watchful eye on them.
The only realistic option as things currently stand is to hope that contemporary jihadists return to their previous occupations and get on with their lives.
Spanish Civil War veterans, despite the communist beliefs of many, proved without exception to be loyal to their mother country. Many served with distinction in the Second World War, like Churchill’s firebrand lefty nephew Esmond Romilly, shot down over the North Sea while returning from a bombing raid on Germany. George Orwell, possibly the most famous veteran of all, became a powerful anti-totalitarian propagandist.
But let’s be honest – with the jihadist mindset as it is, a happy ending seems unlikely this time. The arrogant brutality of their worldview is currently on gruesome display at the trial of Fusilier Rigby’s alleged killers.
The simplest, commonsense solution would be to prevent anyone who has borne arms in Syria from returning to these shores. The Intelligence Services apparently have a list.
The Home Secretary has some wriggle room to deprive British subjects of their passports if they have other nationalities, but she can’t remove a British passport from an individual if that’s the only nationality he has. Needless to say, this rule comes from international not British law. And currently, the government shows no sign of wanting to change this dangerous state of affairs.
Instead, it tries to inflame popular opinion at the prospect of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants settling in this country after 1 January 2014.
They may not have British passports but most, I guess, will arrive with the intention of working hard and bettering their lives. A small number will unfortunately be criminals and spongers. But I doubt that any of them will be devoted to the idea of the violent overthrow of the British state. ·