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Counter-Daesh Update

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on our ongoing campaign to counter Daesh. The safety and security of our citizens is obviously the Government’s highest priority. It is at the core of our work in tackling Daesh, which remains our most significant terrorist threat both at home and abroad. This month marks the two-year anniversary of the liberation of Syria and Iraq from Daesh’s barbaric rule, but, as we saw on 21 January in Baghdad, Daesh is still able to carry out lethal attacks.

The Global Coalition against Daesh estimates that there are still around 10,000 Daesh members at large across Syria and Iraq. Many terrorists remain in detention facilities, but others are hidden in civilian populations and camps for internally displaced persons, so support for Daesh still lingers in many communities. At the same time, while Iraq and Syria remain Daesh’s primary focus, it also presents a clear and growing global threat, so diminishing Daesh’s ability to operate in other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, must also be a priority for the international community. We must not allow it to take root elsewhere. Meanwhile, here at home, the threat we face from Islamist extremism is all too clear. The ongoing inquest into the horrific Manchester Arena attack, which killed 23 people, provides a tragic daily reminder of that.

We continue this struggle because we appreciate the real and direct threat it presents to the British people. The UK will continue to be a leading member of the 83-member Global Coalition, providing military support to tackle the remnants of Daesh, delivering essential aid to liberated communities and countering Daesh’s vile and warped propaganda. With that in mind, let me now set out the steps we are taking.

Since the start of the UK’s military intervention against Daesh, known as Operation Shader, the UK has trained more than 120,000 Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and released more than 4,000 munitions at enemy targets during the course of the air campaign. The global coalition as a whole has invested more than $4 billion to ensure that our partners on the ground and in the region are better trained and better equipped than Daesh. As part of the coalition efforts to prevent the resurgence of Daesh, the UK has provided support and funding for a range of other initiatives across the region. That includes things like the improvement of detention facilities in the north-eastern part of Syria that house Daesh fighters.

Military support for the sovereign Government of Iraq is now adapting in line with the changing security situation, but also Iraq’s growing military capabilities; and thanks to UK efforts and those of the wider coalition, Iraqi security forces are increasingly able to conduct successful independent counter-Daesh operations, and they now have the capability to deliver tactical training to their own armed forces, which is also important. That has allowed the coalition to reduce troop numbers, focusing instead on providing specialist operational support and advice to our Iraqi counterparts; and for that purpose, the UK maintains troops deployed to the region, supporting the Iraqi security forces, including officers working with NATO and with coalition allies.

On 18 February, the Secretary of State for Defence joined NATO Ministers in agreeing to incrementally expand the NATO Mission Iraq in line with that particular strategic focus. Of course, the Royal Air Force continues to conduct routine armed reconnaissance missions to support the Iraqi security forces. We are very proud of the role of our armed forces in that critical theatre.

Most recently, I can report to the House that on 11 February a coalition surveillance aircraft located a number of Daesh fighters. They were occupying two dispersed encampments on the banks of the Tharthar river, west of the city of Bayji. Two UK Typhoon FGR4s conducted careful checks of the surrounding area for civilians, before carrying out simultaneous attacks using two Paveway IV guided bombs against each group. The bombs hit their targets within the encampments, eliminating the terrorist threat.

Beyond Daesh, our support in the region continues to be challenged, including by the persistent and ongoing threat from Iranian-aligned Shi’a militia groups. We have seen a concerning pattern of attacks in recent weeks, including an attack on the coalition air base in Erbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which tragically killed two civilians, as well as injuring several coalition staff. The UK condemns these attacks on coalition bases and diplomatic premises, and we will continue to be absolutely resolute and robust in our response. Iran’s proxies must not be allowed to destabilise Iraq and the wider region, and we work very closely with our allies to support the Government in Iraq, protecting coalition forces and foreign missions. We are also working together to prosecute those responsible for such attacks, where, of course, the Iraqi people are often the primary victims.

The presence of covid-19 in both Syria and Iraq remains an acute challenge. Healthcare systems in both countries are under very severe pressure. Then there is the economic impact—the cost to jobs, to livelihoods—and the wider social costs that communities will feel for many years to come. We need to be particularly vigilant to ensure that these do not provide the conditions—the fertile ground—that Daesh can exploit to gain further support. In that sense, the humanitarian response forms part of our security objectives.

The UK remains one of the largest humanitarian donors to the Syria crisis, having spent more than £3.5 billion since 2012. Over that period we have distributed 28 million food rations, delivered 20 million medical consultations and dispensed 14 million vaccines. In addition to our existing aid commitments in Syria, the UK has also provided funding to delivery partners to help mitigate the impact of covid-19. That complements our ongoing support to deliver activities that help tackle transmission of the virus—things such as health care, water hygiene kits and sanitation support.

In relation to Iraq, clearly the economic challenges are compounded by covid-19 as well as, of course, the fall in oil prices. This compound crisis threatens Iraq’s stability and again risks creating the conditions that would allow extremism to grow; so we are working to counter that. We have committed £272 million in humanitarian support in Iraq since 2014, providing an absolutely vital lifeline to millions, with shelter, medical care and things like clean water. To date, UK funding has helped provide food assistance to more than 500,000 people, life-saving healthcare services to more than 4.3 million people, and safe drinking water and hygiene facilities to more than 3.5 million people.

We are working with the Government of Iraq and the international community to stabilise and reform the economy, in order to create and build the opportunities for all Iraqis. As friends of Iraq, we stand behind Prime Minister Kadhimi’s reform vision, together with all members of the coalition. I had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Kadhimi in London last October for talks and to reinforce our message of solidarity with him and the Iraqi people.

As Daesh’s ability to plot its external operations has been downgraded, it is more reliant on its perverse propaganda and warped narrative to try to maintain its relevance and foment support for the conduct of terrorist attacks. With that objective, Daesh maintains a steady drumbeat of violent communications, which it distributes via encrypted messaging applications. I want to express my appreciation to the British media, which has generally shown admirable restraint and editorial judgment in reporting on these matters.

This is a critical moment. Yes, Daesh’s brand has weakened, but none the less it remains globally recognised. It has been adopted by an assortment—a whole range—of violent groups, from Mozambique right the way across to the Philippines.

In December 2020, the UK counterterrorism internet referral unit saw a 7% rise in the volume of terrorist content online, and we can see a worrying rise in the proportion of children and teenagers who are now being arrested for terrorism offences. It was Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Met who described lockdown and the accessibility of terrorist content online as a “perfect storm”, because terrorists have digital access to those who are probably the most susceptible to extremist narratives.

We are tackling Daesh’s propaganda head on, and I am proud that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office leads on this work on behalf of the global coalition. We have carried out a range of targeted and effective offensive cyber-operations. During the fight to liberate Mosul from Daesh control, we used those capabilities to disrupt Daesh’s battlefield communications, destabilise its ranks and help the coalition to surprise Daesh and, ultimately, overwhelm it.

In November, we revealed that the National Cyber Force is now bringing together the expertise of GCHQ, MI6, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and the Ministry of Defence, to take the online fight to terrorists, including, of course, Daesh. We are degrading its network and dismantling its lies, but also, and importantly, we are building resilience on the ground to its violent, extremist narrative. That particular battle—I would describe it as attritional—is often invisible to the public and the media, but it is absolutely essential, and we are prosecuting it with total vigour and determination.

We want to continue to play our full role in combating Daesh across each of these essential strategic fronts, to ensure the safety and security of the UK and Iraq and of the people and interests affected around the world. As the Prime Minister has said, we will never be complacent in the struggle. We will not let up until Daesh is consigned to the history books. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of the statement. I hope this marks the return to the quarterly updates that we were used to. It has been seven months since the last statement, and as he has shown in his update, a lot has happened since.

I want to start by restating our support for the ongoing military operation against Daesh. In particular, I pay tribute to our armed forces, who continue their brave work to defeat Daesh, train and support Iraqi forces and create the conditions for the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives and their country in peace. They deserve our full support. Given the key role of the specialist support that the Foreign Secretary just outlined, can he confirm that, when the Government bring forward the integrated review that we expect imminently, there will not be a cut in numbers to our armed forces?

Yesterday, 10 rockets targeted an Iraqi military base—the Al Asad airbase hosting coalition troops. One contractor, sadly, died in the attack and 10 British personnel were, thankfully, unharmed. What discussions have the Government had about this incident and what assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the ongoing threat to British and coalition forces?

The fight against Daesh is not simply a military conflict; it requires all the tools of our statecraft to counter extremism, to rebuild communities and to support development. The Foreign Secretary has just told us that the humanitarian response forms part of our security objectives; if he believes that, how does he square it with plans to drastically cut the development budget? UK aid is vital, and I would say indistinguishable from the security threat we face, in rebuilding Iraq to pave the foundations for lasting peace and prosperity, as well as in providing crucial humanitarian support in Syria. That is why we are so concerned about the effects of the Government cuts. The Foreign Secretary said a great deal in his statement about the important contributions that the UK has made in recent years and currently makes, but he said very little about what he plans to do over coming years. We already know that the Government’s cuts include a reduction of around £0.5 billion to the conflict, stability and security fund, which includes programmes such as the counter-terrorism programme fund and extensive activities in Iraq designed to reduce the probability of future insurgencies. Can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why he thinks these cuts are in the national interest and how they will affect the fight against Daesh?

A record 12.4 million people in Syria are struggling to find enough food to eat and to access healthcare, with more than 80% living below the poverty line, while an unprecedented 3 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes due to violence, half of whom are children, and nearly 7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. We must tackle the social and economic challenges facing people if we are to defeat Daesh, so can the Foreign Secretary today rule out cutting aid to Iraq and Syria, as he has done in respect of Yemen, and can he tell us when the replacement refugee resettlement scheme will begin?

Can the Foreign Secretary also tell us what the Government plan to do to deal with the British citizens currently in camps in north-east Syria? His recent letter to four of his Conservative colleagues seemed to suggest that far higher numbers—up to 900 people—travelled to the region than we had believed, and a significant number of those remain. This is causing tension with our allies in the United States, who have expressed extraordinary frustration at the UK’s inaction. The Foreign Secretary does not need to take my word for it; he only needs to look behind him, because there is serious disquiet on his own Benches about this issue. Our US allies believe that the global threat from ISIS will grow if this remains unaddressed. Does the Foreign Secretary accept President Biden’s case that the global threat from ISIS will grow if this remains unaddressed, and given that the Government have it made clear that they do not intend to repatriate British citizens, can he tell me what alternative approach he intends to take in order to deal with this serious security threat?

I was deeply troubled to hear the Foreign Secretary outline how children are being targeted by Daesh propaganda. Does he agree that it is appalling that British children in the UK are being groomed to join Daesh, and will he therefore tell me what steps the Government are taking to protect children from this threat?

Finally, Iran has continued to make efforts to destabilise the region, including supporting and arming militia groups in Iraq, which the Foreign Secretary referenced. What specific steps are the Government taking to counter Iranian destabilisation efforts in Iraq, and what assessment has he made of the wider threat of Daesh outside of Iraq and Syria? Does the Government believe that this threat is currently growing?

We will continue to support the Foreign Secretary and appreciate the steps that have been taken and that he has laid out today, but, with so much Government policy currently under review in terms of the future of our armed forces, foreign policy, security, defence and aid, we must hear far more about our future focused commitments to defeat Daesh.

May I first thank the hon. Lady for her support for the military action we are taking against Daesh? We have not always had that from the Opposition side of the House, but it is important. It is important for our armed forces to know that they have cross-party support, and it is important for our enemies to know that they cannot divide us. She asked about the integrated review. I can reassure her that that will retain its strategic focus on countering Daesh and the terrorist threat that we face. She also referred to recent attacks on coalition forces. Of course, they involve both Daesh and Shi’a militias. Our approach is to work closely with coalition forces, but the big step change that we are seeing is the reinforcement of the capability of the Iraqi security forces. We will continue to work on that, ultimately for a long-term sustainable and better future for the Iraqi people. That is the course that we need to pursue.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of official development assistance, and about the military approach that we are taking being in lockstep with having an effective humanitarian initiative. I have read out some of the figures that show how seriously we take this, and I can reassure her that we will remain among the leading countries around the world in all our ODA, particularly in relation to Iraq and Syria, and this is well above the level that we have had under previous Governments.

The hon. Lady asked about the global resettlement scheme. That is one for the Home Office, but she will have heard the message from the Home Secretary and the Home Office, and I am certainly engaged with that to ensure that it is effective and continues this country’s proud tradition of providing a haven to those who flee persecution.

The hon. Lady also asked about foreign terrorist fighters. Those individuals who have fought with or supported Daesh should face justice, primarily where the crimes have being committed, which is in the region, where the victims are. It remains our view that a prosecution pathway is most likely to be effective there, not least for evidence-gathering purposes. When individuals return to the UK, they can and will be investigated. She will know and respect the fact that that is handled by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service independently, but we work closely with all our partners in order to achieve that. What she said about the US was nonsense. We are in lockstep with all our allies.

The hon. Lady also asked about minors. That is particularly important because of the moral duty, which we recognise. Obviously we would advise anyone against travel to Syria. There is no consular support there—certainly not the kind of regular consular service that we would normally be able to provide—as conditions on the ground make that impossible. As I have said to the House previously, we continue to work with all those concerned to facilitate the return of unaccompanied or orphan children where that is feasible with no risk to security and where it can be done practically. I will not comment on the numbers, as that is obviously sensitive, but I take this very seriously. We regard those children as the innocents of the scourge of war, and wherever it is safe and possible, we will put our protective arms around them. I hope I have addressed all the various points that the hon. Lady raised, and I reiterate my thanks for her support on military action, which is so important.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and update today. He of all people knows very well that Daesh is not a command structure but really an ideas network that has spread an inspiration of terror and hate around the world. So while I very much welcome his update on the military action and offer my complete support to my former comrades in the actions they are taking, can I confirm with him that really we are looking not for pattern of life but for pattern of thought, and that we need to work with those in the region who can help to change it?

What contact has my right hon. Friend had with the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo? What engagement has he had with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? What engagement has he had with others in the region who have been more successful in changing minds than in simply ending them? He knows better than anyone that, as we work with others around the region, the UK’s rule of law and image of justice UK can help and support, and do a lot more to change the potency of Daesh and to end its evil influence, not just in Iraq and Syria, as he has rightly mentioned, but in Yemen and Afghanistan, where it is beginning to spread.

This is not just a question of force, although force is necessary; nor is it just a question of money, but it is a question of justice and of supporting the most vulnerable. In that light, I hope that the Foreign Secretary will see that the commitment that the UK made at the pledging conference in Yemen is indeed the floor and not the ceiling, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa said on Tuesday.

I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is right to say that as well as all the material support that we provide on humanitarian terms and all the military action that we take, we need to confront the ideology head-on. Of course he is right that Jordan and Egypt are critically important in that, as are many others in the region.

On what my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to justice, one important thing is that wherever it is possible—often it is not, because of either the conditions on the ground or the availability of evidence—to prosecute and convict people involved, as we have recently with the 10-year custodial sentence for Mohammed Abdallah, an IS sniper who was convicted back in 2017, it helps to demystify the frankly perverse but none the less romantic image that people, particularly those who are susceptible to being groomed or radicalised, may have of Daesh. The UK concept of justice is not some romantic frill; actually, it has a very powerful effect, because it exposes what we are really talking about here.

I, too, thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I stress that the Scottish National party stands four-square alongside the military action against Daesh undertaken by the UK Government and their allies. This is a common fight and a common endeavour, and we support these actions.

We do differ on some of the wider questions, and I reiterate our concern that, for a variety of global reasons, now is absolutely not the time for the UK to walk away from its 0.7% aid commitment. However, may I urge the Foreign Secretary, as the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) did, to commit to freezing, even within that reduced spend, the aid to Iraq and Syria? That is really very necessary in a region that is in part in chaos because of the foreign policies of the UK and others.

The Kurdistan Regional Government deserve a great deal of recognition and respect for the work that they have done on providing safe haven for refugees and minorities. That deserves support, but so too—I would be grateful for an assurance from the Foreign Secretary that this is under way and should be built upon—do their civil functions to help create a more secure and stable society in their area. The military action is supported and welcomed, but there are civil functions that could be supported too, and that would certainly have our support.

I strongly agree with the points that the Foreign Secretary made on disinformation. The disinformation fight against Daesh and its network of ideas is crucial, but it is a wider issue too. In the SNP’s submission to the integrated foreign and defence review, we called for a national strategy against disinformation in all its forms and the appointment of a hybrid threats ambassador to co-ordinate that activity. I reiterate to the Foreign Secretary that that would be a really useful thing to happen in the integrated review when it comes forward, and if it did happen, it would have our support.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support and for the forensic contributions that he makes on this important issue. As I said to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), we are grateful to have the support of the whole House and the whole United Kingdom for the military action that our armed forces take, often at some risk to themselves. It is important to have that solidarity.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as others have, about the humanitarian element of the work that we do. That is crucial; it is a key part of the strategic jigsaw. We will ensure that we continue to provide humanitarian support and the aid that goes in to provide the supplementary support that is so essential to taking effective military action. He is right to praise the work of our Kurdish partners. They are very important and, yes, we support them both militarily and in their impact on institutions and civil society on the ground.

On disinformation, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the SNP’s submission to the integrated review. He makes a very important contribution. How we deal with some of the new types of threat that we face, from cyber to misinformation, will be crucial to dealing with many of the threats that we face not just in Syria and Iraq but across the world, so we welcome that support.

Now that the caliphate has been overthrown, Daesh reverts to a more traditional form of terrorism requiring long-term containment measures. In order to bring this to an end, a lot depends on who is sponsoring terrorist movements. What evidence do we have of Turkish behaviour towards our Kurdish allies in Syria, and what evidence do we have of Pakistan finally turning its back on an ambivalent approach to Islamist terrorist movements?

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the other Select Committee—the Intelligence and Security Committee—and he is right to raise both those issues. It is difficult for me to talk, as he will understand, about evidence as such, but in both cases we have to monitor it very carefully, not least because both of the countries and forces that he referred to do not often represent a single whole—there will be different views within, for example, the Pakistani Government—but, certainly, we feel that there has been an improvement and a recognition that we face a single global threat that we must all rally round and work together to tackle.

May I start by thanking our armed forces for all they do in the fight against Daesh? Effective counter-terrorism strategies require a whole of society approach to preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalisation. It means bolstering healthcare, education, governance and civil society, and reducing poverty—all moneys that come from our aid budget, so by cutting overall aid spending by £4.5 billion, or 30% compared with 2019, this Government risk making the world a less safe place. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that link, and what recent impact assessment has been made of the effects of planned ODA cuts on our counter-extremism efforts?

I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the military action we are taking. She is right to emphasise the importance of a strategic approach. I do not accept the point she has made about ODA, not least because we remain one of the very greatest and largest donors in ODA terms generally, but also in the two specific theatres I have described today.

I know my right hon. Friend will join me in congratulating Karim Khan on his appointment as chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, but he will also know the painstaking work he was doing through UNITAD—the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL—in Iraq in bringing to trial the war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Daesh against, specifically, the Yazidis. Could he say what support his Department continues to provide to UNITAD in its work in this regard?

I thank my hon. Friend and, as she says, I warmly welcome the international community’s election of the first British chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. Along with Joanna Korner—Judge Jo Korner—who is representing us as a judge on the ICC, I think nothing could be a more potent symbol of the strength of global Britain and the force for good that we represent in the world. My hon. Friend asked about UNITAD. We fully support UNITAD’s work, and I thank her for raising this. We have provided £2 million for the UN investigative team for the accountability of Daesh particularly, and that obviously helps support the investigations of violence against minority communities and, critically, helps witnesses and survivors come forward with evidence.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and the Secretary of State and the Government for their determination to destroy Daesh. In response to the covid-19 outbreak, many countries have seen increases in levels of violence towards religious, belief and other ethnic communities. The Institute of Development Studies has stated:

“With the security forces turning their attention to implementing lockdown measures, Daesh…are re-emerging to attack minorities they previously had targeted”.

For example, in Nigeria, Boko Haram has stepped up its attacks on individuals and churches, and on schools as well. Will the Secretary of State share his plans to specifically support vulnerable religions and belief communities that are suffering due to increased religious violence from Daesh terrorist groups?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have played a leading role in the global coalition, which has scaled back and ended Daesh’s occupation of territory. That is critical because that is the way Daesh subjugates minorities—Christians and others—who have suffered grievously as a result. We also support efforts towards accountability for crimes that have been committed, particularly in Syria, against Christians but also other minorities. That includes the support we provide the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, which is preparing the ground for prosecutions. The military action to scale back control of territory frees up those communities, and we also want to see accountability, so that there is no impunity for the crimes committed.

As my right hon. Friend has already outlined, the last airstrike against Daesh took place on 11 February, when two Daesh encampments were destroyed by laser-guided, precision Paveway bombs, without one civilian casualty. Will he join me in congratulating those Royal Air Force aircrew based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, who, without much publicity or fanfare, and quietly, bravely continue to fight our enemies from the skies above Syria and Iraq?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to not only the RAF teams, but all our armed forces involved in the operations in Syria and Iraq for the critical work they do. He is also right to point to the care and attention that our armed forces, who are renowned the world over, take to avoid any civilian casualties. That is important not just militarily, because with surgical attacks we avoid creating a groundswell—a backlash—against the intervention we take.

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State and I engaged in debate about future policy in Afghanistan. One major reason for the dilemma now faced by NATO—this was alluded to—is the increasing influence of Daesh in the country. Considering the implications for regional security, what role does he envisage for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in future Afghan security policy?

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about the specific organisation to which he refers. In general in relation to Afghanistan, he will know that we are following the negotiations—the arrangements—between the Afghan civilian Government and the Taliban, and making sure that the approach we take is linked to conditions on the ground. That must be the right way forward—to use our influence to moderate and have a positive impact on the future Government after the withdrawal of troops.

I thank all our armed forces for the work they do. Being a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme is proving to be an eye-opener in terms of their day-to-day experiences. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the coalition is essential in liberating territory held by Daesh and supporting the Iraqi security services?

My hon. Friend is spot on, as ever. It is important that we push back on Daesh and the militia that are destabilising not just Iraq, but the region. Crucial to the long-term sustainability, viability and prosperity of that country is building up the independent resilience of the Iraqi security forces. We are focusing on both those elements, and that was very much at the heart of the talks I had with Prime Minister al-Kadhimi when he was here last year.

In addition to winning the military war against Daesh, we must ensure that we win the peace, so it is bitterly disappointing that the Chancellor is pulling the UK back from its commitments to the most vulnerable, despite protestations across the world, the third sector and the political spectrum. Can the Secretary of State tell us what cuts will be forthcoming to programmes supporting communities ravaged by Daesh throughout the middle east and north Africa?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We are a leader in ODA, and we will remain a leader in ODA. The precise allocations, which I think he is after, will be published formally, in the normal way, in September. It is worth noting that we have spent £3.5 billion in relation to the humanitarian response in Syria, which includes £1.7 billion on supporting Syrian refugees and host communities. We have a proud record, and we will continue to do it, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it makes for effective policy.

I applaud the Government’s continuing commitment to countering Daesh. However, Daesh is not the only destabilising regime in the region. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is more to be done through our allies and our own forces to combat the threat posed by Iranian proxy terror groups, including Hezbollah, which is financed and directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps?

My hon. Friend is right. He will know that we proscribe the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, and we have an asset freeze in place against the whole organisation. The IRGC in its entirety is subject to UK autonomous sanctions. We will never let up and constantly look at how we can maintain our targeted and forensic approach to dealing with them militarily and the financial support that they get and thrive on.

How many of the 900 United Kingdom citizens to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) referred who left the country to fight for and support Daesh have been brought to justice either in the United Kingdom or abroad for any offences they have committed?

I am happy to write to the right hon. Lady with the specific numbers that we have, but as I have said, our focus has been first and foremost on prosecuting in the region—where that is possible, that seems to be the right thing to do on jurisdictional grounds and for the victims—but also when they return. I will see whether we have the breakdown of numbers that she wants and write to her, if I may.

Médecins sans Frontières, the wonderful medical charity, has just announced that one of its staff members has sadly been killed in the giant al-Hawl camp, which houses families of Islamic State fighters in Syria. That brings to 30 the number of people who have died in attacks in the camp. This sprawling hotbed of ISIS discontent houses 65,000 people. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to contain the threat posed by this number of people in that location?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is not just a strategic danger; we also have to think of the vulnerable people who are at risk. We are working closely with all our partners. Of course, those camps are a target not just militarily but for the warped propaganda and narrative that Daesh and others seek to sow.

The Foreign Secretary is entitled to ask for and get the support for the military operations against Daesh, but does he agree that we also have to make sure that we challenge the conditions that allow for the rise and the existence of terror, wherever that is? That is not just about humanitarian assistance; it is also about investment in education, health, the economy and the civil institutions that make nations work. What is he doing to lead an international coalition that guarantees support in those areas, as we have successfully done with the coalition to challenge Daesh militarily?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: there is a whole range of international collaboration that goes on. I have to say that the principal cause is not some sort of underlying, opaque set of socioeconomic conditions; it is the fact that there is a tyrant in Syria, Daesh is feeding on the instability, and Iran is promoting proxies and militias in the region.

I welcome the statement and the Government’s commitment to tackle the lingering threat of Daesh. On Monday, a Syria relief report was published, authored by my constituent and Chapel-en-le-Frith resident Charles Lawley. The report found that 99% of internally displaced people in north-west Syria have symptoms compatible with post-traumatic stress disorder, yet only 1% were aware of any mental health support available to them. With this in mind, will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the UK will continue to be a major donor to the humanitarian crisis in Syria and look carefully at support for mental trauma for victims of conflict?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We obviously focus on the material support—hygiene, water, sanitation and the like—but the scale of PTSD and wider mental health issues in those theatres, in the internally displaced persons camps, is legion. We need to keep our focus as best we can, in the incredibly difficult conditions that the aid and humanitarian workers operate in, to try to alleviate that suffering too.

The extremist and evil ideology of ISIS, or Daesh, is diabolical and it needs to be dealt with. In the light of the recent deployment of our brave British troops to Mali, does the Secretary of State believe that the threat of Daesh is spreading and that our current foreign and defence policy is sufficient to protect ourselves from this threat?

The hon. Gentleman asks thankfully an excellent question. Certainly the curtailment of the territory within which Daesh can operate in Syria has been important, but of course, like a Hydra, it can sprout limbs elsewhere. That is the key thing that we need to watch because, as other hon. Members have said, Daesh, or equivalent terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or the successors to al-Qaeda, are looking for the underlying conditions, be it conflict or instability, to prey on. So we must be eternally vigilant to that from the middle east through to the Sahel and many other places.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to crack down on the spread of Daesh’s influence across the globe and, in particular, what steps he is taking to cut off its financial resources?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. Whatever the perverse but romantic ideology Daesh spouts, it relies on cold, hard cash. That is why robbing and depriving it of territory, particularly in Syria, has been so crucial. Yes, we do seek to target the financial lines of credit and other financial support, but it is also important to note that as Daesh has lost territory, it has lost control over oil resources and the people it subjugates, including with illegal taxation, so the territorial aspect is also crucial to the financial objectives.

The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right that Daesh poses a global threat and we absolutely must not allow it to take root elsewhere. That being the case, does he not agree that it is surely counterproductive to be cutting our aid to Yemen and to be continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia for their use in the conflict in Yemen?

We are still a world-leading donor in relation to Yemen. We have remained and will remain between third and fifth in terms of the top donors. As the right hon. Gentleman already knows but I am happy to repeat, we have a world-leading export licence regime that makes sure that anything that could be used for illegal purposes cannot be exported.

The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right that Daesh’s operations pose a threat not only to the people in north Africa and the middle east but to our own security in the UK. With that in mind, will he support the US’s targeted response against militia units and make sure that the UK stands alongside President Biden on such matters?

My hon. Friend is right and, as I have expressed in public statements recently, we have supported the action that has been taken, and we will always stand shoulder to shoulder with our American allies in tackling the militias, Daesh and all those who threaten our interests and our people.

Pope Francis is due to visit Iraq in the coming days. It is the first visit of a pope in the country’s history and he is expected to visit some of the ancient Christian communities in the country who have suffered so greatly under the oppression and terror of Daesh. What specific measures are the Government undertaking to ensure that, as well as tackling Daesh directly, we are supporting the communities—Christian and other faith communities—who are at such risk from its violence and terror?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. Of course, the UK is a member of the global alliance standing up for freedom of religious belief, both in Syria—I have mentioned the steps that we are taking to address the persecution of minorities—and in Iraq. The opportunity is there to work with the Iraqi Government in a different way and we take that very seriously, not just because we feel that we have a moral duty to do it, but because we think that that is the sustainable future for a cohesive Iraq that is fit and prosperous for all its people.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and I associate myself with the comments made about the excellent work of our armed forces in keeping us safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that operations against Daesh, including Operation Shader, represent the best of international co-operation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is important that we have a team effort in the struggle against Daesh, partly because of the severity of the threat that it poses and partly because of the amorphous nature in which it can appear. It is therefore important to have cohesive international collaboration and this is a very good example of that.

Notwithstanding the threat from Daesh, Iran’s support for terrorist activity across the region and in Europe, as we have learned from the Assadi trial, also poses a real threat. Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that Iran’s aggression and support for terrorism will be included in any discussions on a revamped Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; that is a key aspect of addressing and dealing with Iran. I was in Paris recently not just with my French and German opposite numbers—we also had a virtual meeting with the US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken. Clearly, we are all agreed—so there is an element of transatlantic solidarity and cohesion, which has been reinforced—not just on the importance of nuclear compliance and getting Iran back to systemic compliance rather than non-compliance, but on dealing with its wider destabilising activities, including those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

My right hon. Friend is so right to stress that the threat of Daesh is not dead; I have seen for myself in Nigeria how the activities of Daesh-related groups are still causing mayhem. Does he think that this is not going to be solved until we have got rid of President Assad in Syria and have a regime in there that we can trust and that can work on our behalf?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend that it is very difficult to see a scenario where Syria returns to peace, stability and some kind of normalcy with President Assad at the helm.

I also pay tribute to all our armed forces, who are doing some brave work in the region. The Secretary of State has said that he is aware of fighters returning to the UK. May I ask him—if he does not have the information, he can write to me—what numbers are being charged, what numbers are under control orders and what their status is when they come back?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I am happy to write to him about the numbers. Obviously, anyone who returns from Syria or Iraq who poses a threat to the UK is very carefully monitored by the authorities and appropriate action is taken. Prosecutions are highly dependent on the evidence that can be gleaned, but I will write to him with more detail.

I welcome this statement on the UK’s continuing commitment to defeat groups such as Daesh and the dangerous ideology upon which they are based. Daesh has sought to exploit power vacuums throughout the region and to build up influence, and the same may be said of Iran. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps the UK is taking to prevent and deter Iran’s malign activities?

As I said in the answer I gave a few moments ago, one element of those things is part of the so-called JCPOA-plus considerations. More generally, with all our partners in the region, we are looking at our resilience and the support we provide for those who are threatened by Iran’s activities. My hon. Friend will also know that those will not just be on territory. In relation to freedom of navigation, it is important to provide support for international shipping, and that is particularly salient in the strait of Hormuz.

Thousands of Kurdish men and women died fighting Daesh and defeated them in many parts of northern Syria and Iraq, but the Turkish incursion into northern Syria has emboldened Daesh-supporting militia. The UN has said that Turkish-backed militia fighting in Syria continue to commit war crimes against Kurdish civilians, including rape and torture. Militias made up of former Daesh fighters, such as al-Nusra, are strengthening with the backing of Turkey. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning Turkey’s support for these militias?

Of course, Turkey has received a significant number of refugees itself. I can tell the hon. Lady that we have made clear our opposition to Turkey’s military operation in the north-east of Syria. I have to say at the same time that Turkey is an important NATO ally and a key partner. It does an extraordinary amount countering terrorist threats and managing those migration challenges that I mentioned. At the same time, notwithstanding what I said earlier, we strongly support Turkey’s efforts to try to secure a ceasefire, which has reduced the risk of further violence in the Idlib province. Those are the approaches we take, and of course it depends a little bit on the area we are talking about.

My right hon. Friend clearly understands that we have a huge number of UK citizens who have gone to fight for Daesh and at the moment have been captured. What action is being taken and what action is he taking to bring those people to justice, whether within the region or by returning them to the UK, where they would face the justice of our courts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to see accountability and we want to see a deterrent effect. Obviously, it is difficult. It is challenging on the ground, but our preference, and I think the preference for the victims, would be to have the crimes dealt with in the territory where those crimes have been committed. That means seeking to provide support for a justice pathway in the region. At the same time, if we have UK nationals or anyone else who has been there and been engaged in criminal activity or in fighting, we will monitor them and where we have got evidence, we will prosecute them here at home.

I join in the commendation of many of the actions of the UK Government and, of course, our armed forces. Ultimately, we need a stable and sustainable solution in Syria, Iraq and the wider middle east. On the one hand, we sadly have countries such as Russia and Turkey pulling in negative directions, but on the other hand we have the opportunity of a new Administration in the United States. What consideration is being given to the convening of some form of international conference, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations, to renew diplomacy and find a common way forward?

That is an interesting idea. Whether something under the auspices of the UN as a whole would be the right way to go is another question, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the new US Administration is actively engaged with partners. The President has made a clear and palpable virtue of consulting not only European partners but many others. Ultimately, many of the challenges that we are talking about result from strategic tensions that need to be resolved and, ultimately, they can be resolved only through diplomatic initiatives. The hon. Gentleman is right to put the emphasis on that, on top of the vital military work that we do and the humanitarian relief that supports and buttresses those efforts.

Daesh is far from defeated—they are regrouping—but I join the Foreign Secretary in commending the efforts of our military in the counter-Daesh coalition. The coalition’s frustration is the absence of a viable post-operational plan, because unless the end of the conflict is quickly followed by improvements to governance and security, the enemy is free to regroup, retrain and fight again, as we see in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Syria, tens of thousands of hard-liners are escaping from internment camps and detention camps such as al-Hol. The Syrians are asking for our support; surely we could do more to facilitate the processing of those hard-liners. With the US now focusing on another area of instability, namely Yemen, will the Secretary of State say whether we are committed to helping to secure a political resolution and a ceasefire and, if required, to leading a US peacekeeping force in that country?

My right hon. Friend, who chairs the Defence Committee, asked four or five questions in one; I want to try to do them justice, but I am conscious of the strictures of the Chair.

My right hon. Friend makes some really good points. On Yemen, the UK has been and remains one of the leading not just aid donors but supporters of Martin Griffiths, the special envoy, and the initiative, and we will continue that. We have made it clear that we fully support Saudi in its efforts to bring an end to the conflict and also to bring pressure to bear on the Houthis, who threaten, seek to destabilise and rely on Iran for their support.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for making his statement and am extremely grateful for his responding to way more than 30 questions from 30 Members of Parliament, for almost one hour.

I will suspend the sitting for three minutes so that people can safely leave the Chamber and other Ministers and Members can then enter in a covid-safe fashion.

Sitting suspended.