UPDATE The Colombo Conundrum: Britain, Sri Lanka and the lingering ISIS Threat
As Daesh claims responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings, Byline Times looks at the broader threat posed by radicalised supporters returning from conflict zones – and how Britain’s response relies increasingly on local public bodies.
The tragic events in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday took a further twist today, when ISIS (Daesh) claimed responsibility for the indiscriminate bombings which killed more than 300 people.
As Byline Times went to press, we had no way of verifying whether or not Daesh’s statement is true. The organisation often claims responsibility for incidents that are not of its making – so we await authoritative confirmation.
However, Sri Lanka’s authorities have reported that several of the suicide bombers and others allegedly involved in the plot to bomb churches and hotels may have travelled to Syria.
If this is true, this marks a significant shift in the tactics and strategy deployed by Daesh in the aftermath of it losing its short-lived caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Albeit not an unexpected change of approach.
As Daesh began to lose control of its territory – particularly after its access to oil supplies was disrupted – international governments quickly woke up to the threat posed by fighters and supporters who wanted to return “home”.
Councils and their public or voluntary sector partners will now be asked to manage de-radicalisation programmes for people potentially exposed to the ideological indoctrination of Daesh.
In the UK, this issue has been distorted by the disproportionate coverage of Shamima Begum’s case following the removal of her UK citizenship and the decision to grant her Legal Aid.
But the specifics of Begum’s case mask the bigger challenge: how to manage radicalised former Daesh fighters or supporters seeking to move back to Europe.
The Home Office has long prepared for this issue. Last year’s revised CONTEST strategy – the government’s four-pronged counter-terror strategy, published by home secretary Sajid Javid – detailed plans to tackle the problem.
Of the four CONTEST strands, dubbed the “Four Ps”, three deal primarily with immediate threats to UK security and/or alleged activities that can broadly be defined as criminal. These are the Pursue, Protect and Prepare strands overseen largely by the police and intelligence services. The fourth CONTEST strand, Prevent, deals with the non-criminal space and was set up to stop those vulnerable to being radicalised from starting down that path.
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Prevent has, of course, been somewhat controversial since its inception in 2003. Amid criticism that the strategy led to widespread surveillance of Britain’s Muslim community – a claim vehemently denied by ministers and police alike – Home Office officials responded by attempting to “de-securitise” the process. That led the Home Office to hand administrative control of local Prevent programmes to the local authorities which co-ordinate anti-radicalism services, thereby taking the police away from the frontline.
But just as these revised CONTEST aims have come into force, local authorities have also been asked to assume some responsibility for oversight of those returning from war zones and areas in which radicalism and terrorism have thrived.
In practice, this means councils and their public or voluntary sector partners will now be asked to manage de-radicalisation programmes for at least some people potentially exposed to the ideological indoctrination of Daesh. This will be done, in part, by offering a beefed-up “Desistance and Disengagement Programme”.
This is a risk – and one the Home Office and inexperienced local authorities will do well to manage effectively. Last year’s revised CONTEST strategy estimated that 900 British citizens ‘of national security concern’ had travelled to Syria. Of these, around 180 had been killed during fighting, while a further 360 had already returned to the UK.
That meant that, by last year’s estimate, some 360 people were still due to return from Syria as Daesh prepared for its last stand in towns such as Marashida.
That may not seem like a big figure, and it is important not to overstate the threat. But the 2018 CONTEST document reveals the Home Office’s assessment of the challenge posed by committed Daesh fighters and sympathisers: “Many of the most dangerous individuals remain overseas. They may have received training, indoctrination, and expanded their network of terrorist contacts, and therefore pose significant challenges for the security and intelligence agencies and for law enforcement. These individuals remain a significant threat to the UK and our interests overseas.”
Naturally, the police and intelligence services will co-ordinate responses to any immediate threats to national security posed by returning individuals. But councils and their partners – NHS trusts, schools, universities, charities, mental health trusts, criminal justice agencies and others – will be required to assess and monitor less serious radicalisation threats.
Many of the most dangerous individuals remain overseas. They may have received training, indoctrination and… therefore pose significant challenges for the security and intelligence agencies. They remain a significant threat to the UK.”2018 Home Office CONTEST strategy
Are town halls equipped for this?
Few doubt the ability of local authority staff. But councils have endured deep budget cuts since the imposition of extended austerity measures in 2009. Many town halls have had their government grants cut by half over the past decade – leaving them little financial capacity to take on new responsibilities.
Under an agreement with Whitehall, most new financial burdens on councils are funded centrally. And, in fairness to Sajid Javid and his Home Office officials, he has committed to covering the cost of the revised Prevent strategy.
But many local authorities have complained that they have incurred unexpected costs of “new burdens”.
As the example of Sri Lanka could yet prove, there is little scope for mistakes, oversights or error.
Britain will have to manage these threats carefully. On the one hand, CONTEST officials must overcome claims that Prevent is disproportionately focused on the Muslim community – not least because the number of Far Right referrals is rising fast. But they must also be alert to very real challenges posed by potential radicals returning from Daesh-inspired regions.
These dual aims will require significant resources, nationally and locally.
Now is not the time to pull the purse strings tighter.