12 August 2014
The threat of returning jihadists, while a real concern, is being overly amplified in the UK by a fearful national discourse.
Simon Palombi
Simon Palombi
Former Consultant, International Security


British members of Islamic State film a YouTube recruitment video.


Just over a month ago, Nasser Muthana, a 20-year old British citizen fighting with ISIS in Syria posted a photo of a bomb-making factory on social media. ‘So the UK is afraid I come back with the skills I've gained’ [sic], the caption taunted. To images such as this, politicians, experts, pundits, and the media have responded with alarm, quickly branding foreign fighters as threats, with fear centred on what they could do with the sentiment, know-how and networks acquired through their ‘jihad tourism’ once returned.

There is no doubt that ‘foreign fighters’ enjoy the capacity to engage openly with their jihadi brethren, build improvised explosive devices and exploit their role in a local context. But what of reassuring the public that, once returned, this capacity will be severely diminished by a layered security, law enforcement and judicial apparatus? Indeed, instead of appearing confident in their costly security regimes, leaders have appeared concerned, quickly convening multilateral meetings to understand the new ‘threat’ of foreign fighters, exploring policy options to deny their ability to return home, and using the language of fear in public addresses.

This approach is no doubt because they know that no system is foolproof. Expectation management requires them to say so. However, such pessimistic discourse both obscures the already well-resourced role of the intelligence and security services to deny would-be terrorists the capacity to attack, and makes the public needlessly fearful. Returning foreign fighters may intend to do harm, but without access to the ways and means of terrorism, they are merely dangerous minds no more or less dangerous than other ideological extremists, unless they catch the UK off-guard, as seen in the case of Anders Breivik who was undetected by Norwegian security services. In comparison to Norway, however, the UK is relatively alert to extremism.

Intelligence gathering and analysis bodies, such as Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (within MI5) work with the Metropolitan Police, British Transport Police and policy branches of the executive government on potential threats. Once threats are assessed, various administrative controls can be utilized by the executive, such as TPIMS (control orders) and surveillance. In addition, criminal laws, such as preparatory offences enable the identifying and arresting of people in the formative stages of preparing an attack. Penalties can include life imprisonment.

Supra-nationally, these layers are assisted by a global anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism regime, driven by the Financial Action Task Force and Egmont Group, which target the banking sector, remittance services, and Hawala intermediaries. This regime enables governments to freeze bank accounts belonging to individuals and organizations, including charities, and target the flow of legitimate commodities, ranging from precious metals to gemstones, suspected of financing terrorism.

Additionally, international intelligence sharing arrangements, such as shared travel-watch lists, boost the pre-emptive powers of the domestic security layer.

All together, these layers work to disrupt the ways and means of would-be terrorists. Yet, despite this sophistication those in control of the public message continue to use threat magnification when discussing security − a concept that the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Legislation once warned only serves to boost military, security, intelligence and police force budgets and to make ‘the careers of politicians, police officers, civil servants, academics, analysts, lawyers and demagogues’.

Indeed, the security services and executive branches benefit from a public that is constantly alert to terrorism for intelligence and budgetary purposes. Operations rely heavily on tip-offs from family members and the public; to the security services, a complacent public may not be alert to suspicious activity. Their budgets are also reliant on there being a high threat. Post-7/7, the security services have routinely pushed for higher budget allocations, which have been granted by subsequent governments. This has placed an onus on the security services to justify the high budgets to ministers, which ministers in turn must justify to the taxpayer.

At a time when the defence budget is in retreat in the UK, the security services have been budgeted to grow at 3.4 per cent, topping out at £1.7 billion over 2015-16, so politicians have a vested interest in publicly discussing the ‘threat’ posed by terrorism in such terms.

And because the consequences of such attacks can be very high, the risks will always be judged high even when the probability of attack is low. This threat magnification also enables government policies that may negatively impact on society and business but which make intelligence gathering easier and appear proportionate. For example, businesses deemed to be operating services at risk of attack may be severely affected via increased security regulation, while others, including charities may find their assets inexplicably frozen. Magnification also props up arguments in favour of policies that undercut unalienable rights, such as stripping single citizenships and imposing on privacy.

And at the same time, an industry that sells protective services, CCTV cameras, x-ray machines and molecular sniffers (for bomb detection) continues to thrive.

Ultimately, threat magnification serves a purpose but when not considered in context, the policy response risks becoming disproportionate. In light of the potential insecurity foreign fighters may cause, it is important that leaders seek to remind the public that there is a system in place designed to diminish any threat they pose. Although no system can be perfect, those foreign fighters who are not detected by security services and arrested at the border will be denied the ways and means for a terrorist attack by a system already designed to catch would-be terrorists.

Our world is beset with threats and risks. Managing them, understanding them and mitigating them requires a rounded analysis and response, not one that focuses almost entirely on one – albeit terrorizing – aspect.

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