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British Jihadis (Iraq and Syria)

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

I am afraid that many of my remarks on this important subject are going to be somewhat critical of the Government, but let me say first that I do recognise the strong commitment, from the Prime Minister downwards—I am sure this extends to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is valiantly standing in for her colleague today—to counter the threat posed by the evil of militant, expansionist Islamist extremism. Nor do I wish to pick fault in the basic direction of the Government’s counter-terror strategy. A number of voices from all parties criticise the Prevent programme, and in particular its methods. I think they are mistaken. My fear, and my reason for calling the debate, is not that the tools available to the Government to combat extremism are being focused wrongly or used inappropriately; it is that those tools, in particular the legal framework, are insufficient to tackle a threat that would destroy our way of life and everything we stand for.

I remind the House that it is not just a handful of UK citizens who have returned from Iraq and Syria. The Government’s latest estimate, expressed by the Minister for Security and Economic Crime in his letter to me last week, is that just under half of approximately 850 UK-linked individuals of national security concern who have travelled to engage in the conflict in Syria and Iraq have returned.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important issue and outlining it very quickly. Does he agree that the research carried out by the Soufan Centre in October 2017 estimating that at least 425 British ISIS members had so far returned to the UK—the largest cohort in Europe—is worrying, and that this House has a right to know how many of them are still in sight and on the radar of our security forces?

The hon. Gentleman captures succinctly the essence of my speech. Not only has the institute made that estimate, but the Government corroborate the fact that just over half of those 850 people have returned to the UK.

I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on calling this debate. Is he as surprised and appalled as I am that these people are allowed back into the country, after going abroad to fight with our enemies and to threaten our lives and our freedoms?

I guess I am, but can the hon. Gentleman come up with something that would persuade another Government to take such a UK citizen? I would like them never to set foot back here again, but I know that we would never allow a foreign resident who had committed a terrorist atrocity to stay in our country.

There are individuals being kept in jails in, for example, the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria who have not yet been tried for any activity. They are being held there, but the British Government refuse to interact with them on the grounds that they are in Syria, even though they cannot leave. Does my hon. Friend understand that there is also a problem for the people who have not yet been tried but whom the British Government do not seem willing to take any responsibility for?

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about her constituent and the distress caused to her family. It is important that there is due process that is transparent both for the individuals involved and the public.

Lest anyone doubt the relationship between travelling to jihad conflict zones and radicalisation, it is worth noting that research from the Institute for Global Change, which surveyed a sample of prominent jihadis from the middle east and Africa, found that nearly two thirds had fought in one of the three major hubs of jihadi conflict over the past 30 years. Here in the UK, Salman Abedi travelled to Libya shortly before his terrorist attack, which killed 22 people at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last year. Two of the London Bridge attackers, Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba, had expressed an interest in travelling to Syria to join Daesh.

Are more than 400 of those returning individuals in jail or going through the court system? We simply do not know, because the Government will not release the figures, despite repeated requests. There is strong demand from the public to know how many who travelled to fight foreign jihad are currently free in British communities. Those men and women are escaping justice, despite having been prepared to fight British troops in the name of a sickeningly evil cause. If they are not locked up or deradicalised, they are potentially able to import back to British streets brutal killing techniques learned on the battlefield. The Government must know what the figure is. It is simple to collate, and they were prepared to give it back in May 2016 when Advocate General Lord Keen responded to a parliamentary question stating that, at that point, there had been 54 successful prosecutions of returnees from Iraq and Syria, with 30 more cases ongoing.

The refusal to update the number of prosecutions is fuelling the suspicion that in fact only a fraction of returnees are being charged because it is often too difficult to amass sufficient evidence that is admissible in an open court. That suspicion extends to suspected terror suspects who are deported back to the UK. Here, the lack of prosecution cannot be attributed to someone slipping into the country unnoticed, difficult though that in itself should be. Deportees are directly handed back to the UK authorities by another nation. They should be delivered straight into the judicial system and made to pay for their crime, but how many are? Again, at present we do not know because the Government have claimed that they do not hold the information in this form. That is simply not credible.

Last month, I was granted special access to a British woman in a removal centre in Izmir, Turkey. The Turkish authorities wished to deport her back to the UK with her two young children. I hope that the Minister will share my concern over the detention of those children, who are aged just three and one, and will report to the woman’s Member of Parliament about what they are doing on this case.

The Turkish authorities gave me the identities of six other British nationals, two adults and four children, who they said had been deported from the Izmir removal centre in the past 12 months. In speaking to the Security Minister before this debate, I was asked not to name these individuals on security grounds. On this occasion, I am content to agree to that request, but I will say this: it comes to something when a foreign country is prepared to be more forthcoming to a British MP about the terror threat posed by particular British citizens than Her Majesty’s own Government.

Some will claim that this obfuscation is based on a laudable need to maintain a deterrent effect rather than on a desire to save the Government from embarrassment; that it is better to remain vague because future generations are less likely to be deterred from following the next call to global jihad if they know how few of their brothers and sisters have been jailed for previous attempts. Yet such a view surely grossly underestimates the sophistication of the jihadis’ communication capacity. If British justice is falling short, Daesh, al-Qaida and whatever is the next strain of this evil perversion will be able to get that message out to potential recruits. Will the Government take this opportunity to be more transparent on this vital issue?

In her response, will the Minister answer the following questions: how many UK nationals deported back to the UK have been subject to a managed return because of their suspected support for ISIS, as described in the Home Secretary’s response to me here on 8 January; how many of those have been charged with a terror-related offence; how many of the aforementioned “approximately 850 UK-linked individuals” were deported back to the UK; how many of those have been charged with a terror-related offence; and what is the total number of these 850 who have been charged with a terror-related offence?

Finally, rather than attempting to hide the weakness of our legal system in regard to returning jihadis, will the Government consider the following proposal to strengthen it? The Home Secretary has already said that she will consider extending the period of pre-charge detention to allow the authorities more time to prepare a case, but will the Government consider the steps that have been taken in Australia where it has been made an offence to travel without a verifiable legitimate reason to certain designated terror hotspots—as Iraq and Syria were while that conflict was taking place. The declared area offence law is in its infancy in Australia, having only been on the statute book since 2014, yet the independent reviewer of terror legislation there has just recommended that it be extended for a further five years. Surely there is value in following our ally to create our own UK jihadi travel ban, placing the burden on the suspected terrorist to give proof of legitimate purpose if he or she travels to a designated conflict zone.

I respectfully say that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely on to something there because, crucially, there is evidence that can be provided to prove the case. The difficulty in so many other cases is that, if we want to uphold our way of life, that means not prosecuting people unless we have sufficient evidence to put them on trial and convict them. Unfortunately, it is very often difficult to establish what they have been doing in Syria, and it is therefore difficult to bring a prosecution. His idea is a good one.

I am sorry—I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. He is absolutely right.

The approach that I have described would reflect the reality that, for the overwhelming majority, there is no legitimate reason whatever to travel to a jihadi conflict zone. The fact of their going is proof enough that they are supporters of terror. By following this simple step, which is already on the statute book in other countries to which we are allied, we would have a better chance of ensuring that these people face the consequences of their actions if they survive their experience to return to the UK.

I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for calling this debate; it is a pleasure to follow him. This is an important debate, following the appalling terror attacks in Britain in recent years. I hope that my words will be complementary to his. I wish to shed a little light on some of the difficulties faced by the military, and people in the foreign affairs and security worlds, regarding this issue. I had some knowledge of the ISIS campaign while working in the armed forces prior to my election to this place.

We are in a muddle about how to deal with British jihadis. I am very sympathetic to the Government, who are doing their best, but I feel that they have been somewhat hidebound by human rights and policing legislation, and laws from earlier Governments that make military action in some foreign states extremely difficult. The reality is that it is easier to kill a British jihadi in that state, rather than to arrest, turn or rehabilitate them. I do not mean that in either a positive or negative way; merely it is a statement of fact. My understanding is that this is down to what are known as detention pathways. These are processes that stipulate the rules and procedures to be followed when making arrests in order to do so lawfully and to respect the detainee’s human rights, whether people think they should be respected or not. This works on two levels.

First, the detention pathway in states that do not control their own territory, such as Syria and the Syrian regime, is non-existent. It is therefore incredibly problematic for the United States or UK allies in Syria to be able to make an arrest legally and without challenge, and therefore equally difficult for the UK to take possession of that prisoner. Is that person a prisoner of war, a terrorist or a criminal? It becomes even more difficult in cases involving proxy forces whose understanding of the Geneva conventions may be somewhat murkier than one would sometimes wish.

Secondly, even in allied states such as Iraq—for example, in the Kurdish territories of northern Iraq—detention pathways are still problematic because they can be challenged in or from the UK by human rights lawyers here if they think that human rights violations are taking place. We have seen some pretty appalling examples of ambulance chasing on an international scale, and I am very glad that some of those lawyers have been struck off. Those states are fragile for a reason. The rule of law and the behaviour of soldiers are not always as good as one would wish or as is almost always the case in our own standards.

The use of UK law overseas—especially the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which regulates the police in the UK—has been problematic. Please do not misunderstand me, Mr Deputy Speaker: one of the principles of ethical war is that it is legal. However, warfare that becomes too overtly legalistic and belongs more to a box-ticking culture, rather than a culture of a fundamental, natural understanding of ethical law, is not necessarily moral. I know from my modest experience that there is evidence that some of the legal hurdles that UK forces operate under make war neither more legal nor more ethical. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) wrote a pamphlet a couple of years ago called “The Fog of Law”, which is well worth reading.

In summary, through no fault of our own the Government have inherited a difficult position and a difficult problem with regard to the application of lethal force and UK law overseas in fragile or collapsed states. I do not have a simple answer, because it is a deeply complex problem and I saw it somewhat in action. Those laws do not always take into account local circumstance, failed states or fragile states, and are perhaps more evidence of the proof of unintended consequences.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this debate and on raising an important issue on which he has done much work. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime, on whose behalf I am speaking tonight, very much values his contribution. May I also thank all colleagues who have contributed this evening, including my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely)?

The safety and security of our country, our people and our communities remains the Government’s No. 1 priority. Regretfully, our country and, indeed, this House have seen the tragic impact of terrorists who seek to use violence to undermine and destroy our society’s commitment to liberal values. Of course, their cowardly actions serve only to strengthen our resolve and our determination to protect the United Kingdom and to disrupt those who engage in terrorism.

Central to that work to protect the public is our management of the threat posed by British-linked individuals who aspire to travel, and who have successfully travelled, to Syria and Iraq to fight for Daesh. The Government have also planned and prepared for the risk posed by those who return.

We have been clear over the past few years that people should not travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. The horrific nature of Daesh’s brutal regime is well documented and there is no doubt that anyone who, for whatever reason, has travelled to those areas against UK Government advice is putting themselves not only in considerable danger, but under justifiable suspicion.

As we have stated previously in the House, we know that more than 850 UK-linked individuals of national security concern travelled to engage with the Syrian conflict. We estimate that over 15% of those who travelled have been killed in fighting in the region and just under half have returned to the UK. A significant proportion of those individuals who have already returned are assessed as no longer being of national security concern. The Government have been clear throughout the conflict that any British national who has travelled to Syria or Iraq and chosen to fight for Daesh has made themselves a legitimate target while in the conflict zone.

As a distinguished barrister, my hon. Friend will know, however, that the difficulty for prosecuting authorities is establishing what those individuals were doing in those foreign fields. Given that we apply the rule of law and believe in justice, that inevitably means that, all too often, under the current system people who were probably doing something will get away with it.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He brings his legal learning, knowledge and experience to the House, to great effect. He is right and has hit the nub of the problem, namely the tension that this democratic, liberal country faces when dealing with people who have gone overseas and to whom we require, rightly, the rule of law to apply as it does to any other citizen. The difficulty posed by that, of course, is the gathering of evidence to prove the case to the required standards.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Does she accept that another part of the problem is that the British Government in some situations do not appear to be willing to do what many other countries have done, which is to repatriate those who are, for example, in Kurdish-run jails in Kurdish-run areas of Syria and require those people to stand trial? That is creating a Kafkaesque situation for some British citizens who have not yet been proven to have engaged in these activities. Will she engage to look at that?

I will ensure that the Minister hears the hon. Lady’s concerns. As I said at the beginning, national security is very much at the forefront. I will ask the Minister to write to her on that point.

Can the Minister tell me, or get her colleague to write to me on, the proportion of the 850 individuals who are no longer deemed to be of national security concern and whether any of them have been tried? It is quite possible for them to go over and commit crimes, find out it is all terrible, and come back and no longer be of security concern, but they still need to be held accountable for their actions while they were over there.

I am told that a significant proportion of the 850, minus the more than 15% of those who have been killed in the region, are assessed as no longer being of national security concern. Again, I will ensure that the Minister responds to the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

We have been equally clear that anybody who does return will be investigated by the police to determine whether they have committed criminal offences or pose a risk to national security. Whenever possible, British nationals fighting for Daesh should be brought to justice either in the UK or in the region. Where there is evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service will seek to prosecute these individuals. Of that, the House can be completely certain.

Indeed, the police and Crown Prosecution Service have already investigated and prosecuted a number who have returned. For example, last month an individual was sentenced to 10 years after being found guilty of possessing an AK47 gun, receiving £2,000 for terrorist purposes and membership of Daesh. That conviction demonstrated our ability and commitment to work with our international partners to use evidence from the conflict area to support a successful prosecution.

Of course, prosecution decisions must be taken independently by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service where there is evidence. As hon. Members have identified, given the nature of this conflict, it is not always possible to gather sufficient evidence to seek prosecution. However, in these cases I can reassure the House that this Government and the police have a range of tools and powers to manage the threat returners may pose, and we are using them. For example, we can use the royal prerogative to cancel British passports where they are at risk of being misused.

On the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) raised about banning people from the country, the Home Secretary may deprive a person of their British citizenship where satisfied that doing so is conducive to the public good. That may only happen, however, if the person would not be left stateless as a result. That is in line with our commitments under international law, as a signatory of the 1961 UN convention on the reduction of statelessness. We can remove passports where someone is of dual nationality, but we have to abide by the law when it comes to citizens who have only a British passport.

We can impose travel restrictions for individuals subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures, subjecting them to a range of conditions. We can also use temporary exclusion orders to prevent individuals who are suspected of involvement with terrorism from returning to the UK, except where they do so in a strictly controlled way, and to place in-country conditions upon return, including regular reporting to a police station.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness raised Australian exclusion zones. My right hon. Friend the Security Minister, following a meeting with his Australian counterpart last year, instructed officials to examine the Australian legislation and assess its usefulness in a UK context. As with all our counter-terrorism legislation, that option is kept under review. We are not aware of any prosecutions of Australian nationals as a result of criminalising travel to specific areas of Syria or elsewhere. The complexity of that legislation was perhaps demonstrated when, last November, the Australian Foreign Ministry revoked the declaration of Al Raqqa province as an area where travel was not permitted for Australian citizens. That decision reflected the fluidity of the situation on the ground in that conflict zone and the difficulty in maintaining an effective and proportionate travel ban in such circumstances. The whole of Syria remains a do-not-travel destination under Australia’s travel advice, as is the case with our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but it is kept under review, in line with all other counter-terrorism legislation.

I know that the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness understands, as other hon. Members do, that when it comes to matters of national security we cannot reveal how we are managing certain operations or cases, or we risk undermining this critical work. That means, I suspect, that I cannot answer some of the questions he has posed today, but I can reassure the House that the figures covering the use of these powers will be shared in the annual update to the Government’s transparency report on disruptive and investigatory powers.

The key question is whether that update will match those, without naming names, to the 850 who were known to have travelled to Iraq and Syria. That information is missing at the moment, and the House deserves to hear it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Security Minister considers that, as well as the five questions that the hon. Gentleman posed in his speech.

Before I finish, I would like to discuss the deportation of suspected Daesh fighters to the UK from Turkey or other countries, as it is obviously a matter of interest to Members across the House. Because Governments do not necessarily disclose whether they have any security or terrorism concerns regarding individuals they deport, it is not possible to provide a figure for how many may have been deported to the UK due to suspicions around Daesh membership. However, the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt that where we have security concerns regarding any individual being deported to the UK, their case will be treated with the utmost attention and determination. We have done, and we will continue to work extremely closely with the deporting country to manage that return, share any evidence that might be available, investigate the individual upon return and mitigate any threat they may pose through the powers I have mentioned previously.

I have listened to the thoughtful and well argued contributions from Members on both sides of the House this evening and I recognise the attention that this issue rightly receives from Parliament and the wider public. I can assure the House that the Government treat this issue with as much attention and commitment as possible, to ensure that we continue to do everything we can to keep this country safe.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).