This week the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has said that “we are in the middle of a generational struggle against a deadly extremist ideology.” These words come as part of an explanation which accompanies her response to the murder of James Foley by Islamic State (IS) fighters, containing new proposals to prevent British citizens from travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight on behalf of the IS.
Those responsible for the murder of James Foley have been identified as British citizens who had left the UK to fight for an extremist organisation, which has prompted fears that this is to become a worrying trend, and has brought the question of what is to be done to prevent the exportation of home-grown extremists back to the forefront of political and public consciousness.
Theresa May claims that at least 500 British citizens have left the UK to fight in Iraq or Syria and in so doing have joined an array of terrorist organisations. She has therefore made known a three-fold strategy to tackle the problem of British extremists leaving to fight for terrorist organisations. These recommendations are similar to those recommended by the Government’s Extremism Task Force in December 2013.
The introduction of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) for extremists will be designed to restrict a person’s behaviour and language so as to prevent extremist preaching and rhetoric, which does not constitute a criminal offence. As with the traditional Anti-Social Behaviour Order, breach of the order will be a criminal offence, although further details are not known at this time.
The order may prove an effective tool in the silencing of extremist preaching, although I very much doubt that the imposition of the order will lead to the individual desisting. It is a mechanism through which extremist preachers can be removed from the streets and from public view through their imprisonment for breach of their order. A key element in ensuring this is effective will be to then ensure that they do not have access to preach to the quite literally captive audience in prison.
Whether or not the measure will be effective is one question, but whether it is right or appropriate to achieve the outcome in this manner is another which must also be addressed. I, personally, have never been terribly keen on the ASBO, although I appreciate the need to somehow tackle behaviour which can have an enormously detrimental impact upon the lives of others. However, criminalisation is a sanction with far reaching consequences for the individual and should be reserved for those who have transgressed a prescribed law. The wide ranging nature of behaviour which can lead to an ASBO and in turn to imprisonment for breach is far too great.
The ‘extremism ASBO’ is therefore far more palatable than its traditional counterpart, for the simple reason that it solves a specified problem of extremist preaching, rhetoric, and behaviour. The order will only work however if its terms, and what is considered to be unacceptable are clearly defined.
Aside from this, it maintains the opportunity for the preservation of free thought. People are allowed to think whatever they please, regardless of how socially unacceptable those views are. What they must not do is verbalise those views, force them on others, or act upon them to cause harm to another. When opinions or beliefs cross the line of acceptability, that they incite or cause harm to others, then action proportionate to the threat should be taken.
The second measure is an extension of banning orders used to shut down the existence of extremist organisations within the UK, thus lowering the threshold which currently requires the Home Secretary to prove that the group is directly involved in terrorist acts. This will aim to prevent the spread of extremist views and target those who support terrorist organisations.
The third is the imposition of a legal duty on all state-funded organisations to tackle extremism, predominantly through the Prevent programme.
Aside from the new measures, there are other strategies currently in use, and criticism from the Labour Party and David Davis, a prominent Conservative MP, that these measures do not go far enough to protect the security of the British public.
Theresa May has strengthened the rules regarding the use of the Royal Prerogative, which allows the Government to remove the passports of British citizens who intend to travel abroad to fight, thus preventing them from leaving the UK, a power which has been used on 23 occasions.
The Government has the power to strip those who have dual nationality of their British citizenship and exclude them from the country. The Immigration Act 2014 provides the power to strip naturalised Britons of their citizenship if fighting abroad and also exclude them from the country in certain circumstances.
Those to whom exclusion does not apply face the prospect of prosecution for participating in terrorist activities abroad, on their return. Theresa May claims that so far this year 69 people have been arrested for terrorism offences in Syria, 12 have been charged, and four have been convicted.
In the Serious Crime Bill it is the Government’s intention to make it a criminal offence to travel overseas to prepare and train for terrorism.
However critics argue that these measures do not go far enough. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, believes there are holes in the Government’s response which fail to address gaps in the Prevent programme, a lack of detail regarding civil orders to tackle extremism, and concerns raised by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation regarding the weakening of Control Orders.
David Davis believes that all those who wish to fight should be relieved of their British citizenship regardless of whether they have dual nationality. The problem with such a measure is that it would contravene international law which prohibits the Government from making someone stateless. The 1954 UN Convention on Stateless Persons and the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, both of which have been ratified by the UK, mean that it is unlikely they will impose a measure which renders a person stateless and contravenes an internationally accepted principle.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has suggested a presumption of terrorism if a person travels to Iraq or Syria without notifying the authorities prior to their visit.
As ever a public debade must be encouraged, but the measures imposed as a solution to the problem must be balanced and necessary. Should people be prevented from leaving the UK to participate in terrorist activity and then return without sanction? No, they should not be allowed to take as David Davis puts it “a short violent holiday” and Lord Carey has said that those who travel abroad to commit violence should know that “there is no going back to civilised society”.
I am sure that many will take issue with Lord Carey’s use of the term ‘civilised society’ but that aside, the basic point is this: if these acts were committed in the UK, there would be very severe consequences. We must therefore find a way in which these acts can be prevented by stopping people from travelling in the first place, or by making it clear that just because an act was committed abroad, it does not mean that a person escapes the consequences of their actions.