Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy

Shiraz Maher writes: In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, [Mayor of London] Boris Johnson proposed that all the British fighters in Syria should be presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Based on our extensive research and contacts with Western foreign fighters that are currently in Syria and Iraq, this is a dangerous and counterproductive proposal that would increase – rather than diminish – the terrorist threat to our country.

For the last 18 months our research unit at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London has been conducting interviews with foreign fighters. We now maintain a database of more than 450 fighters currently in Syria and Iraq.

Their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group. Some of them will pose a significant national security threat, and some will turn to international terrorism. For them, there must be a strong punitive approach, involving arrest and prosecution.

But tougher laws and blanket punishment shouldn’t be the only approach.

The only authoritative study of the issue, based on nearly one thousand jihadist returnees from previous conflicts showed that one in nine former fighters subsequently became involved in terrorist activity. This does leave a majority who do not wish to become involved with terrorism, for whatever reason. In many cases they are disillusioned, psychologically disturbed, or just tired.

While it is the most ideological, vicious and bloodthirsty fighters who attract the headlines, many have found the reality to be far different from what they were led to believe. “We were pumped up with propaganda,” a foreign fighter, Abu Mohammed (not his real name) told us yesterday.

Abu Mohammed has explained that he, along with scores of other British fighters wants to return to the UK. When he first travelled out there, he said “it was all focused on Assad,” he said. “But now it’s just Muslims fighting Muslims. We didn’t come here for this.” [Continue reading…]

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