Why Cameron’s Counter Terrorism strategy won’t work

Cameron's plans to close Britain's doors to returning British citizens who have fought for the Islamic State will not deal with the problem

Cameron is attempting a hard and fast policy which is likely to create many long term and protracted problems. As Shami Chakrabarti notes “when will our government learn that there are no short cuts to our security”

In Australia this week, Prime Minister David Cameron announced new proposals to deal with British citizens returning from fighting for the Islamic State (IS). These proposals will form the basis of The Counter Terrorism Bill which is expected to be passed into law by January. They outline a new plan in which British citizens who have fought for IS militants could be banned from re-entering the UK, for at least two years, unless they give themselves up at the border and comply with strict measures. They could be put on a “no fly list” that would prevent them from travelling to Britain. The plan also gives new powers to border police and officers to seize passports, while airlines could be fined for not complying with the UK’s requirement to screen passengers and stop suspects from boarding planes. These new conditions have been described by a governmental official as “the toughest in the world in terms of cracking down on foreign fighters”. Thus, they have caused much controversy and critics – like yours truly – have questioned their legal standing as well as political effectiveness.

Britain’s situation is a difficult one; 500 British citizens are thought to have left to fight for the IS – the number if 71 in Australia – and about half are thought to have returned. However, these proposals are bad. Ignoring their dubious legality which has been covered extensively in the media, they are not practically or politically good. As, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty (a civil liberties advocacy organization) notes, there are fundamental problems with a policy of “[d]umping suspected citizens like toxic waste, [and] abdicating your responsibilities to the international community”

Cameron has expressed his willingness to compromise these issues for the sake of national security, claiming “at the end of the day I make the choices on what I believe is necessary to keep the British public safe”. However it is by no means clear that these proposals will do that, in fact, they might make things worse.

Returning fights are not inevitably going to carry out terrorist attacks. Many my try, however, many are also returning because they are disillusioned and have started to question the IS. Hanif Qadir, Chief Executive of the Active Change Foundation (an anti-extremist group) argues that some were “sold a lie. They didn’t sign up for this sort of barbaric behaviour and now they want out”. Further, as I noted last week, some of these fighters went to resist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repression and got caught up with IS militants. Thus, turning away these types of people would not ease the security threat in Britain and could make it worse. By closing Britain’s doors could exacerbate resentment for the West and could, as one journalist notes “further alienate a minority who already feel dangerously excluded”. These returnees could actually be useful to the British government – this is currently being considered by some analysts in London, while Hanif Qadir says “You can’t look at these individuals as potential threats” but rather as “potential assets”.

A policy of just closing British borders to these people does not engage with deeper problems. Cameron said, in his speech, that it is important to look at the root causes. However, instead of looking for opportunities to challenge the IS’s calls to would-be fighters he simply claims we must “ban extremist preachers from the country” and “root out extremism from our schools, universities and prisons”. He also addresses the problems of the “ungoverned” internet by calling on private companies to increase filters. This has not been the only response of the international community. For example while the EU has pursued similar policies, US companies have been less willing to increase filters – concerned that it would be an impingement of free speech.

Policies designed to engage with would-be and returning fighters have received terribly little attention. Cameron disregarded the problem of “exclusion from the mainstream” saying “[o]f course we have more to do” but Britain is a “successful multicultural democrac[y]”.  Reintegrating these individuals into society should be considered as it has been in Denmark who have attempted to reduce exclusion by offering free psychological counselling and working to find them jobs or education. While this has its problems it highlights an alternative strategy to the hard and fast one Cameron is attempting. A less extensive program has been suggested by those who argue more needs to be done to stop radicalization. For example, Yvette Cooper – Labour’s shadow home secretary –suggests “introducing mandatory de-radicalization programmes as a priority”.

It should be also asked where these stranded British citizens will be kept. Does the UK think that other countries will willingly host British extremists until Britain is ready to have them back? They will certainly not and nor should they.

Cameron is attempting a hard and fast policy which is likely to create many long term and protracted problems. As Shami Chakrabarti notes “when will our government learn that there are no short cuts to our security”



In fact some the official commentary around the bill is not only not engaging with would-be Islamic fighters but is also downright condescending. For example, Chris Philips, former head of the National Center Terrorism Security Office, said people needed to know they could not be a “gap-year jihadi”. This gives the impression that he believes Islamic extremists travel to fight for the Islamic state on a whim – rather than acknowledging the Islamic State’s rhetoric has won them over.

While Liberty Director, adding “it needs to be built on intelligence, evidence and justice not speeches, soundbites and even more laws”. Taking the shortcuts now will limit the future security of the country and may even make the situation worse.