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I was quoted in a piece for Canadian media outlet CBC on 3 November, talking about the need for structured and well financed de-radicalisation, disengagement and exit programmes. Those who want to leave violent extremist groups are ‘low hanging fruit’ – they want out, we need to help them out to ensure they don’t end up back in the hands of a fresh set of recruiters. We can either help them, or have them remain a threat to our safety.

Here is a link to the article by Andre Mayer.

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There are growing reports that British jihadis fighting in Syria want to come home; it has been claimed that dozens are trapped in Syria unable to leave, and up to 100 are stranded in Turkey having made it out of Syria, but worried or unable to come back to the UK.

This should be no surprise.

Many will be scared for their safety; British jihadis are now being killed at a rate of one every three weeks. The latest fatality was reported this weekend; Muhammad Mehdi Hassan from Portsmouth was just 19 years old and had travelled to Syria with a group of friends. Of the six that went, four are now dead, one remains in Syria and one is in prison in the UK.

Others will be disillusioned. The actions of ISIS – including the horrific murder of four western hostages – paint a picture of a group of blood thirsty, evil barbarians. This is undoubtedly true of many, for whom legal redress feels like a wholly inadequate way of achieving justice for their victims.

There will also be a sizeable minority fighting with ISIS who did not sign up for this kind of terror. Some will have gone there originally on humanitarian grounds and been radicalized along the way. Others will have joined the struggle against Assad, but now find themselves fighting fellow Muslims and murdering innocent people, including women and children.

There will even be those who went explicitly to join ISIS but are appalled by the depths of depravity to which the organization sinks.

Given the truly heinous actions of ISIS, it is not surprising that the UK government’s response to the rise of British foreign fighters has been so firm and resolute, looking to ban them from returning to the UK, prosecute those who do come back, and even considering the use of treason laws for the most extreme cases.

While those guilty of crimes must be held accountable, this blanket response misses important opportunities that could strengthen -not weaken – national security.

First, those that return are likely to offer intelligence and insight to improve our understanding of ISIS, a group that has so far out-paced security experts at every turn.

Second, refusing re-entry to scared and disillusioned ISIS members is likely to make enemies of them for life. The testimonies of former violent extremists point to the uncomfortable truth that for many, unexpected acts of kindness from government officials created a chink of doubt that was part of their de-radicalisation process. We should be competing for their loyalty, not leaving them to fall into the hands of yet another set of violent extremist recruiters.

Third, what is more effective in countering ISIS propaganda than a returned foreign fighter who has seen the error of their ways and can speak to the horrors of what ISIS is doing? As the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6 said, “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists,” adding that they can “explain why going abroad to fight is a very bad idea”. The success of networks such as Against Violent Extremism (AVE) underlines this point.

The UK government needs to add two new elements to its policy to tackle foreign fighters and the rise of ISIS.

First, it should establish a clearing house near the Syrian border in Turkey to process and return home scared and disillusioned British jihadis. Most will be trapped, having had their passports, mobile phones and credit cards confiscated by ISIS.

In support of this effort, it should run an information campaign within Syria to inform British ISIS members of their return options. This does not mean letting criminals off the hook; those guilty of crimes must be prosecuted on their return. But balanced messaging might just convince some to return home to face justice, rather than opt for a life on the run with a terrorist organization.

Second, the government should set up a national EXIT programme, similar to those operating in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The Channel Programme targets individuals in the pre-criminal space, but needs to be complemented by a national programme aimed at those who have been radicalized and recruited and want to leave terrorist or violent extremist movement.

Such a scheme should offer a wider range of services than Channel, such as support for post-traumatic stress disorder, medical treatment for physical injuries sustained on the battlefield, de-radicalisation sessions, as well as help reintegrating into the family and wider community and access to education, employment and training.

It should also offer advice and guidance to the parents of foreign fighters, many of whom remain in contact with their children via phone, email or social media channels. In these exchanges, they become de-facto negotiators, desperately trying to keep lines of communication open and hoping to convince their son or daughter to come home. There is already evidence pointing to the effectiveness of these programmes.

The situation in Syria is heartbreaking on every level; innocent lives lost, tortured or brutalized; the destruction of a once thriving middle income country; the corruption of a faith; young people drawn to ISIS’s perverse ideology; and the knock-on impact of instability across the wider region. And as events last week in Canada remind us, there is also the risk of the threat coming home to the UK.

The government is right to take a firm stand against ISIS and those who fight in its ranks or support from the sidelines. But we need to face facts: we cannot stop British jihadis returning home; we cannot arrest our way out of the problem; and we do not have the resources to mount surveillance operations against all returning foreign fighters.

Instead, we need a more nuanced approach to deal with the different levels of threat. Arrest and prosecute those who have committed a crime and set an example of those guilty of the most heinous offences. Work proactively to bring back those who are scared and disillusioned, so they come back with us and on our terms. Turn the stories of returned foreign fighters into ammunition against ISIS. And offer those capable of reintegration the support they and their families need to get back on their feet and become productive members of society.

Tough measures are reassuring in the face of a threat such as ISIS. But they usually obscure the most promising opportunities to enhance our national security in the long-term.

This article was originally posted on Huffington Post on 27 October 2014.

Here is an article I have with Ross Frenett on HuffPo arguing for the need to invest resources in films, campaigns and digital activities to push back on the messages that violent extremists use to attract young people to travel to Syria to fight. 

Today’s report by the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee warns of the alarming number of westerners traveling to Syria to fight and calls for stronger efforts to counter the recruitment narratives of extremists. As Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, warned “without the Government helping peer-led projects to tackle this problem, many more may be lost to radicalisation.”

Also launched today is a report we have written for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, (ISD) in which we outline the nature of the problem and what must be done to stem the tide of western citizens willing to become so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in countries, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Drawing on research conducted by ISD on the effectiveness of counter-narratives, our own database of suspected foreign fighters, and interviews with members of the Against Violent Extremism who have travelled and fought in previous conflicts, the report offers a concrete roadmap for success in pushing back on the kinds of extremist messages that draw people to places such as Syria to fight.

We define three distinct messengers that need to be countered:

Violent extremist groups: The formal propaganda wings of the armed movements engage with potential supporters, produce propaganda and provide justification for their actions.

Their supporters: There are many associated groups and networks that use their websites, forums and social media accounts to support and encourage the actions of groups that employ foreign fighters, celebrate martyrs and produce large quantities of propaganda. These are, in most cases, more influential than the violent extremist groups; a recent ICSR report found that two of the most influential supporters and cheerleaders for the Syrian Jihad were not even based in Syria, but were in fact western supporters with a strong social media presence.

Individual foreign fighters: Some foreign fighters tweet from the frontline, sharing their experiences; everything from accounts of their daily routines, to reflections on life on the frontline. The most famous example is the late Omar Hammami, an American Jihadist killed in Somalia. Others, such as Abu Fulan al-Muhajir, tweet their experiences from Syria in English.

Just as there is no single profile of violent extremists, there is no one discernible ‘type’ of foreign fighter. From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.

In response, counter-messages or counter-narratives need to mirror these motivating factors. Based on the types of propaganda that are being used to convince young people to travel, we identify five main areas of counter-messaging:

You are being duped – don’t be taken in by their propaganda: the idea of betrayal is an especially strong and compelling one for young people. This message could focus on how potential recruits are being misled by propaganda for example, images of dead children taken from other places and presented as happening in the theatre of conflict or stories about al-Shabaab’s extensive use of the forced recruitment of children.

We are not all in this together – there are as many divisions as bonds between different Islamic factions. As noted above, the idea of camaraderie and unity is one stressed very often by those groups that utilise foreign fighters. Highlighting the vicious infighting between and within groups could go a long way towards countering this message. This could consist of examples of foreign fighters finding themselves under fire from other Islamic groups rather than the ‘enemy’, or even examples of foreign fighters who were betrayed and murdered in the conflict zone by the very groups they traveled to join. The most famous and powerful example of this is the American foreign fighter, Omar Hammam, who even live tweeted one attempt on his life.

This is not an Islamic struggle – you do not have a ‘duty’ to fight. This could include messages about why fighting is not justified within Islam, why it is not a ‘just war’, and therefore bringing into question the Islamic duty to fight.

You are useless and you’ll get in the way – do something more constructive instead: This message could be unpacked in a number of ways: local fighters explaining that foreign fighters will be a liability on the frontline, and may not be allowed to fight anyway; citizens explaining that their need to protect foreigners will put them in danger; refugees on the indulgence of foreigners wanting to have adventure when there are women and children starving in refugee camps. This message could also give very clear ‘calls to action’: collect money, raise awareness, work for political dialogue, lobby your political representatives, etc.

Conditions on the frontline are terrible – it is not the adventure you are expecting. This message could focus on the reality of poor conditions in these conflict zones, including testimonies from returned foreign fighters, and accounts from journalists or locals on the ground. It could include a ‘call to action’ linked to the adventure motivation, such as volunteering in other Islamic/Muslim majority countries or regions.

The problem of foreign fighters is not new; it goes back to the Spanish civil war and beyond. But the advent of social media opens up multiple new possibilities for direct communication to encourage ever more numbers of young people to respond to a so-called ‘call of duty’.

Social media can also be a tool for good; with concerted efforts and smart campaigns, we too can reach these young people and give them the knowledge to ask the right questions about whether travelling to Syria to fight is the right thing to do. For now, the violent extremists are winning the war of ideas online. It’s time for the counter-messengers to raise their game.

 

 

 

I’m pleased to be chairing an event in London organised by the Forgiveness Project on 28 April where the focus will be on how former extremists can use their own experiences to help tackle violent extremism.

Sharing their own personal journeys of moving away from extremism will be Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist and former organiser of the White Aryan Resistance in Canada and Hadiya Masieh, a former Islamic extremist who was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir radicals, until the 7/7 bombings changed her perspective.

I’m a passionate believer that the stories of former extremists are a credible counter-message to extremist propaganda and I’m working to create a global resource of testimonies through my work at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and via the AVE network we run there.

More information about the event and tickets are available here.

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