Counter-terrorism: foreign fighters - Home Affairs Contents

Counter-terrorism: foreign fighters

Preventing radicalisation


1. Our report on Counter-terrorism, published in May 2014, highlighted the alarming number of UK citizens and residents travelling to fight in foreign conflicts, notably in Syria.[1] The Government responded to our report in February 2015, stating that it is delivering targeted projects that address risks arising from the conflict in Syria and Iraq. More than seventy projects have been approved for 2014/15 so far, including training for frontline staff who may come into contact with potential travellers and work to equip parents with the skills and knowledge to identify risks and vulnerabilities and the confidence to seek support should they need it. It is also funding projects for young people, including mentoring and an interactive workshop that highlight the risks of travel to Syria.[2]

2. Three British teenagers, two aged 17 and one 19, were stopped from travelling to Syria from Turkey and were flown back to the UK and arrested on 14 March. A Turkish official states that the case was "a good and a clear example of how the security cooperation between Western intelligence agencies and Turkey should work."[3] We agree with this assessment and commend all those involved. It is vital that there should be more analysis of what motivates even the very miniscule number wishing to join a murderous and sadistic band, such as IS.

3. Preventative work with communities must be a top priority for the Home Office's de-radicalisation work. It is urgent that new partnerships are developed with mosques and other community groups and that they play a key role in Prevent counter-terrorism programmes. We need to reassure them that they will not be 'toxified' by helping the authorities to identify those who they suspect of radicalisation and by engaging with these individuals.

4. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act imposes a general duty on a range of authorities—including local government, prisons, schools and universities, NHS providers and the police—to have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.[4] The Government conducted a consultation between December 2014 and January 2015 seeking views on the draft guidance from the authorities concerned.[5]

5. Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, and Dr Erin Saltman, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, identified universities and prisons as two of the most significant places where radicalisation occurs. The internet, they argued, was a secondary influence. Dr Saltman argued that it was vital that frontline workers, such as chaplains, imams, teachers and prison officials, gained anti-radicalisation expertise.[6]

6. The National Offender Management Service receives funding from the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism to enable it to carry out its counter-extremism programme.[7] With the support of NOMS, Muslim prison chaplains are developing the 'Ibaana' Programme, designed to target the small number of prisoners with the most entrenched extremist views. One-to-one sessions over several hours with a trained chaplain will be used to challenge the theological arguments used by these prisoners. The Prime Minister's Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism stated that the Programme would be rolled out in full by April 2014, and would complement the existing education programme to develop prisoners' understanding of Islam, already completed by 1,600 individuals.[8] However, in February 2015, Andrew Selous MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice said that the Programme would be rolled out, "where appropriate, in due course".[9]

7. We are concerned at the evidence that some people who do not previously hold or express any extremist views become radicalised in prison. It indicates that the programmes we have are not working effectively enough. Work to prevent radicalisation in prisons should be a high priority in the Government's counter-radicalisation agenda. The Prime Minister's Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism stated that the 'Ibaana' prison counter-radicalisation programme would be rolled out in full across British prisons by April 2014. The implementation of this programme across the country must be clearly outlined to specific deadlines. This programme is of vital importance given this growing threat, and so giving ambiguous timetables indicating piecemeal application are simply unacceptable. It is vital that individuals working with prisoners, particularly those offering counselling, should undergo specific training to equip them to combat extremist ideologies.

8. The Channel programme provides tailored support to people identified as being at risk of radicalisation. The Association of Chief Police Officers has reported a 58% increase in referrals to Channel in the past year and there have been over 2,000 referrals since April 2012. In the 2013/14 financial year, local authority co-ordinators in 30 priority areas worked with over 250 mosques, 50 faith groups and 70 community groups as part of the Prevent counter-radicalisation programme.[10]

9. It is particularly important that prisoners who have demonstrated extremist views in prison should receive support, monitoring and appropriate intervention on their release, including through the Channel programme. The Channel programme should be strengthened to provide long-term, effective monitoring of participants, to ensure proper evaluation of these prevention programmes. All the evaluations should be sent to our successor Committee by 31 July 2015.


10. The public can report online content they suspect may be of a violent, extremist or terrorist nature direct to a specialist police unit, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU). Examples of illegal terrorist or extremist content include videos of violence with messages of 'glorification' or praise for terrorists, or postings inciting people to commit acts of terrorism or violence, which are placed on internet sites, chat rooms or other web-based forums.[11] Specialist officers assess the information and, where appropriate, investigate the website or work with partners to remove it.[12] The CTIRU has taken down 72,000 individual items since it was established in 2010.[13]

11. Jamie Bartlett, the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank, Demos, argued that it is already relatively difficult to try to censor all the types of material that terrorists will post online, especially as much of what they post online is not directly illegal. He argued that, as the internet continued to evolve, it was going to be increasingly difficult to remove content because it was becoming easier to evade surveillance.[14] He also suggested that, because large-scale, network-level analysis of data would in future be easier to evade, partly as a result of the Snowden revelations, targeted human intelligence work was likely to be more effective.[15]

12. Dr Saltman did not oppose the removal of extremist material from the internet, but advocated the promotion of community-led, counter-extremist online narratives to challenge it. Quilliam and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue are working to pilot educational programmes that has already gone live in Canada.[16]

13. On 17 February 2015, Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana, three teenage girls from East London, flew to Istanbul with the apparent intention of crossing the border into Syria to join ISIS. On 24 February, the Metropolitan Police announced that they had reason to believe that the girls were no longer in Turkey and had crossed into Syria.[17] This followed an incident in December, when another girl from their school appears to have travelled to Syria, after which the three were interviewed by police. Thought the girls have not been traced, and information about why they decided to go to Syria is largely speculative, it seems likely that contact with jihadis over social media could have played a part.

14. Where social media companies are given evidence that users of their services are seeking to promote violent extremism, they should be prepared to take action to suspend their accounts, as they do where there is abuse or harassment of other users.

15. Sara Khan, the director of Inspire, a non-governmental advocacy organisation working to counter extremism and gender inequality, argues that Isis is succeeding where other jihadist groups had failed, with a "very aggressive" social media campaign deliberately targeting young girls to help found their so-called Islamic State:

    they are saying to young girls that what is real empowerment, what is real women's liberation is being part of Isis - being a mother, a wife, there is no other role in public life… I think a lot of young girls can't see the deceptive and sinister meaning that women have no rights, they have no authority, agency, freedom or opportunity.[18]


16. The evidence given to the Committee demonstrates that improvements urgently need to be made in responding to the radicalisation of young people. We suggest, as a starting point, a five point plan to strengthen the measures already in place.

(1) Improve communication

17. Communication between the police, schools and parents is in need of vast improvement. The police must engage in a regular and open dialogue with schools and community groups to ensure that information is exchanged and new initiatives can be explored at community level. Schools and the police must inform parents immediately, and work together when there is even the smallest hint of radicalisation, or a close association with someone who is thought to have been radicalised.

(2) Increase police diversity

18. Dal Babu, former Chief Superintendent at the Metropolitan Police, raised concerns about diversity of officers involved in the Prevent programme, arguing that "If you are going to fight terrorism effectively then your key operatives need to reflect the people that you are dealing with and that is not happening here."[19] Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said in evidence to the Committee that he wants the counter-terrorism command to be "reflective of London", namely "40 percent from different minority groups" and that they have changed their recruitment criteria to be more reflective of London."[20] It is essential that the officers working on the Prevent programme, as in other areas of the police, are truly reflective and representative of British society.

(3) Provide advice

19. There needs to be an advice service open to all, particularly targeted at parents who wish to seek advice or express concerns about a particular individual. This must be well publicised, and be a less extreme step than using the Anti-Terrorist Hotline. There is a fear of stigmatisation among communities and such a helpline could go some way in changing these attitudes. This method should be included in the Prevent strategy.

(4) Provide a counter-narrative

20. The universality of the internet has enabled people to be radicalised in their bedrooms unnoticed by others. Policing social media sites such as Twitter, a means by which many IS propaganda has been spread for example, is impossible. Young people need to be equipped with the skills to become critical consumers of online content, in order to build a more natural resistance against radicalisation through online extremist content and propaganda. This is not just about counter-radicalisation: an informed, critical and questioning approach to online sources is a valuable asset in all aspects of a young person's social and intellectual development.

(5) Improve international co-operation

21. According to the Turkish Ambassador, the British embassy in Ankara sent details about the girls to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs six days after the girls left the country. This is an unacceptably slow response which significantly reduced any chances of intercepting the girls on their journey while there was still time. International efforts to work in unison to tackle the growing number of young people travelling to these conflict zones to join extremist groups must be strengthened urgently.


22. The Committee took evidence from Sally and Micheal Evans, the mother and brother of Thomas Evans, who converted to Islam and travelled to Somalia to fight with Al Shabaab. In February 2011, he was stopped at the airport by the police while attempting to go to Kenya. The police did not contact his family to inform them that he had been stopped. Mrs Evans said that the family had received no support, and she felt that had "fallen between the cracks", because there were no initiatives to support families in their situation who were not Muslim.[21]

23. The Metropolitan Police run the anti-terrorism hotline, which urges people to telephone with information about unusual or suspicious activity. All information passed to the police is treated in confidence and is analysed and researched by experienced officers to determine what, if any, police action should be taken.[22] On 10 February 2015, Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe described the number as "unmemorable."[23] In April 2014, the French Government set up an anti-terror hotline for individuals who want to report an alarming situation that they think is threatening a family member or loved one, offering information on what to do.[24] The French Government's Stop-Djihadisme website promotes the hotline's status as a free number (Numéro Vert), and highlights the importance of immediately contacting the police or gendarmerie if there are fears that a minor might leave the country.[25]

24. We commend all the families which have spoken to the Committee during the course of this inquiry, namely Sally and Micheal Evans, Hussen Abase, Fahmida Aziz, and Sahima Begum, for their courage in speaking up. Not enough support is given to families by the Home Office. Greater counselling and support services should be offered to them.

Preventing individuals from travelling abroad

25. In our 2014 Report, we expressed concern about the relative ease by which foreign fighters appear to be able to travel to Syria. It is the responsibility of the international community to assist transit countries, such as Turkey, and the UK must offer practical support to those countries in securing their borders. We recommended that the Government maintain representation from the UK Counter Terrorism Command to help the Turkish authorities identify those who are at risk of crossing the border and share any relevant intelligence with the Turkish authorities. We also concluded that the Government should work with transit countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to better establish who is likely to be travelling for genuine humanitarian reasons.[26]

26. The Government stated that the UK is undertaking a range of activity to support Syria's neighbours to secure their borders and stop the flow of foreign fighters. The Police and Security and Intelligence Agencies are co-operating with counterparts to detect and disrupt individuals suspected of terrorist offences and they are sharing best practice with a number of countries on strengthening border security, through protective security measures and analysis of passenger data.[27] The Government has regular meetings with international counterparts on how best to persuade individuals against travel and stop foreign fighters before they reach Syria. It is working closely with the Turkish authorities and using their counter-terrorism and extremism liaison officer network to build capability with key partners across the region.

27. The Government also states that it has a range of measures that can disrupt an individual's plans to travelling abroad. These include exercising the Royal Prerogative to withdraw or refuse passports. The Home Secretary made a statement in April 2013 setting out the criteria which would govern the "necessary and proportionate" use of this power in the public interest.[28] Between April 2013 and October 2014, the total number of passports removed or refused under the Royal Prerogative was 2,310, though some of these cases may relate to passports having been fraudulently obtained, rather than concerns about terrorism.[29] A Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures notice can also contain measures restricting foreign travel. Where an individual going through the criminal justice system, restrictive licence or bail conditions can be used to prevent the person leaving the UK. New provisions in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 will provide the police with a power to seize travel documents (including tickets and non-UK passports) at the border temporarily, during which time they will be able to investigate the individual concerned.[30]

28. It is alarming that people subject to TPIMs or control orders have been able to abscond. We find it surprising that the police and security services are not better able to monitor people who they claim are such a substantial threat. We recommend that the police and security services review the methods and resources that they use to monitor these individuals.

29. Not enough emphasis is placed on preventing people from travelling abroad to join jihadist groups. At the check-in desk at airports and during exit checks, greater care should be taken with people travelling to destinations of concern (DOCs), such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Nigeria, as well as neighbouring countries which might be used as transit points to these destinations. The Home Office should work with airlines which serve these destinations to develop stricter controls for passengers travelling there. Airlines have a duty to work co-operatively with security services. We welcome the proposals put through on 12 February 2015, they will make sure that airlines take greater responsibility.

30. Where it becomes clear that individuals might already have left for Syria, the police need to work faster to alert overseas partners and airlines about them. Being reactive is inadequate: once people reach Syria and Iraq, or even Turkey, it is too late. No-fly lists should be strictly adhered to and shared internationally.

Combating returning foreign fighters

31. Our 2014 Report concluded that the Government needs a clear strategy for dealing with foreign fighters on their return, which may include help to come to terms with the violence they have witnessed and participated in, as well as counter-radicalisation interventions. We are concerned that their experiences may well make them vulnerable to post-traumatic stress, thereby increasing their vulnerability to further radicalisation. We recommend that the Government implement a programme, similar to Channel, for everyone returning to Britain where there is evidence that they have fought in Syria. The engagement in this strategy should be linked to any legal penalties imposed on their return. In developing the strategy the Government must work with mental health practitioners and academia to ensure that the programme best integrates those returning from conflict zones such as Syria.[31]

32. The Government states that they can manage the risk that individuals pose on their return to the UK through a broad range of disruptions including imposing restrictive TPIMs, asset freezing, and prosecuting for Terrorism Act or other offences where appropriate. Dual nationals can also be deprived of their British citizenship on public interest grounds and non-nationals may be excluded from the UK. The existing Prevent Case Management process, including the multi-agency Channel programme, enables police to work with local partners to manage individuals who are vulnerable to radicalisation.[32]

33. In Aarhus, Denmark's second-largest city, an exit programme has created for returning foreign fighters. A vital component of the Aarhus process is its use of individual mentors, who engage with would-be or returning fighters over practical day-to-day issues alongside serious moral and religious debate. Aarhus model Superintendent Allan Aarslev, who is in charge of police end of the programme states:

    "What's easy is to pass tough new laws. Harder is to go through a real process with individuals: a panel of experts, counselling, healthcare, assistance getting back into education, with employment, maybe accommodation. With returning to everyday life and society. We don't do this out of political conviction; we do it because we think it works."[33]

34. We are disappointed that the Home Office has not implemented a programme for individuals returning to Britain where there is evidence that they have fought in Syria. It is vital that the Government works with mental health practitioners and also assesses the Aarhus process to ensure that the UK's programme best integrates those returning from conflict zones such as Syria.

35. There are of course people who travel to Syria and have not been involved in terrorist activity. It is clear that such people should not face the prospect of criminal sanctions, and we welcome the fact that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe accepts this principle.

1   Home Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2013-14, Counter-terrorism, HC 231 Back

2   HM Government, The Government response to the Seventeenth Report from the Home Affairs Select Committee Session 2013-14, February 2015, Cm 9011, p. 2 Back

3   BBC, Turkey sends teenagers back to UK after Syria attempt, 15 March 2015 Back

4   Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, s 26 & Schedule 6 Back

5   HM Government, Prevent duty guidance: a consultation Back

6   Q126, Dr Erin Saltman Back

7   Andrew Selous, HC Deb, 3 February 2015, cW Back

8   HM Government, Tackling extremism in the UK: Report from the Prime Minister's Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism, December 2013, p. 6 Back

9   Andrew Selous, HC Deb, 3 February 2015, cW Back

10   Lord Bates, Hansard, 16 December 2014, c35W  Back

11  Back

12   ACPO, The Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit  Back

13   James Brokenshire, Hansard, 21 January 2015, col. 332 Back

14   Q160, Jamie Bartlett Back

15   Q162, Jamie Bartlett Back

16   Q143, Dr Erin Saltman Back

17   BBC News, Missing teenagers have crossed into Syria, Met Police say, 24 February 2015 Back

18   Independent, Missing Syria girls: Parents must 'keep passports under lock and key' to stop children joining Isis, 23 February 2015 Back

19   Evening Standard, Police ignorance of Islam 'hindering fight against radicalisation', former top cop says, 9 March 2015 Back

20   Q325, Mark Rowley Back

21   Q53, Q54, Q88, Sally Evans Back

22   Metropolitan Police, Anti-terrorism hotline Back

23   Independent, UK's top police officer Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe forgets anti-terrorism hotline number live on air, 10 February 2015 Back

24, Lancement d'une plateforme d'assistance aux familles et de prévention de la radicalisation violente [Launching a platform of assistance to families and the prevention of violent radicalisation], 25 April 2014 Back

25, Besoin d'aide? ["Need help?"] Back

26   Home Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2013-14, Counter-terrorism, HC 231 Back

27   HM Government, The Government response to the Seventeenth Report from the Home Affairs Select Committee Session 2013-14, February 2015, Cm 9011, p. 4 Back

28   HC Deb, 25 Apr 2013, col. 68WS Back

29   Passports removed or refused using the Royal Prerogative from April 2013 to October 2014, Home Office Freedom of Information release published 5 January 2015 Back

30   HM Government, The Government response to the Seventeenth Report from the Home Affairs Select Committee Session 2013-14, February 2015, Cm 9011, p. 5 Back

31   Home Affairs Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2013-14, Counter-terrorism, HC 231 Back

32   HM Government, The Government response to the Seventeenth Report from the Home Affairs Select Committee Session 2013-14, February 2015, Cm 9011, p. 5 Back

33   The Guardian, How do you deradicalise returning Isis fighters?, 12 November 2014 Back

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Prepared 26 March 2015