Cameron on Friday was waxing bellicose about a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before” because of ISIS. Compared with Hitler in 1939? Compared with the IRA during the 1980-90s? But Cameron’s statement to the House yesterday was remarkable not only for the way he has been forced to backtrack over the weekend because of the legal and political constraints, but also for its very limited focus on British jihadis. There was nothing about the central issue of how to deal with the ISIS threat on the ground, and nothing either about how to counter the radicalisation of young Muslims which is at the heart of turning them towards jihadism. It was restricted entirely to trying to stop fighters returning to the UK, as it is estimated some 250 out of 500 have already done, and the proposals even on this were weak on detail and effectiveness.
One proposal was to restore something akin to the old control order regime, plus the idea of relocating round the country those subject to it so that they would find themselves in a less hospitable environment if they tried to abscond, as several have under both the control order and TPIM (terrorist prevention and investigation measures) regime. But the problem with both regimes is that they dispense with the central requirement within democracies for open and transparent justice. Cameron’s second proposal was to stop British jihadis returning from the Middle East, but that seemed to require revoking their citizenship which is prohibited under at least two of Britain’s treaty obligations, and anyway would not necessarily be in the UK long-term interest since we want other countries to accept back deported criminals. His third proposal was to permit police and immigration officials to remove fighters’ passports at the port of entry on return to the UK. But that invites scepticism about how judiciously this new power would be used when the attribution of ‘terrorist’ can be a highly contentious matter in the absence of trial evidence.
The obvious and right solution to this limited issue within the much bigger and more demanding problem is a trial and, where proven, conviction in an open court. The only block on this is MI5/GCHQ insisting that such open justice would reveal the methods by which they often obtain the evidence. But after Snowden’s revelations that is now known by everybody, and the government shouldn’t allow the security services to hold the criminal justice system to ransom. Even then Cameron’s response to the real issues – how to contest ISIS in the Middle East and how to stop young Muslims being radicalised in the first place – remains unanswered.