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12 February 2016

Dealing with those who join extremist groups: is there scope for a different approach?

4 mins

The Terrorism Act 2000 defines a ‘terrorist’ as a person who has committed an offence under various sections of the Act, or as a person who is or has been, concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. 

There is a long list of offences, which includes:

  • being a member of a proscribed  organisation, inviting support for a proscribed organisation; 
  • providing money or other property to be used for the  purposes of terrorism; 
  • providing or receiving instruction or training in the making or use of firearms or explosives etc.; 
  • doing anything outside the UK where the action would have constituted the commission of an offence under section 56 – 61 of the Terrorism Act 2000 if it had been committed in the UK; 
  • eliciting or attempting to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of Her Majesty’s Forces,  the intelligence services or a constable which is information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism; 
  • inciting another person to commit an act of terrorism wholly or partly outside the UK. 

Two recent cases

Recently there have been a couple of cases that have highlighted some difficult issues about those who commit offences under the Terrorism Act 2000, arising from joining groups to fight in Syria and then return to the UK, with a change of heart or as a result of becoming disillusioned. 

Two British men, Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, who are friends from Birmingham travelled in May 2014 to Syria where they joined a terrorist group. On returning to the UK in January 2015, both were jailed and pleaded guilty to one count of engaging in preparation of terrorism acts. Mr Sarwar’s family had reported him missing after they found a letter saying he had left to join a terrorist group to take part in jihad. On their return they were sentenced at Woolwich Crown Court to 12 years and 8 months in prison with an extended licence period of 5 years. 

The second case is that of Tareena Shakil. Ms Shakil is British and aged 26, with a son aged 14 months at the time that she travelled to Syria (October 2014) to join Islamic State. Ms Shakil was convicted after a two week trial at Birmingham Crown Court for membership of ISIS and encouraging acts of terror in twitter posts made before she travelled. 

She was jailed for four years for membership and two years for encouraging acts of terror, to run consecutively. Ms Shakil is said to have told jurors that she made a mistake following which she had escaped IS territory. 

Issues arising

These are two of the most recent cases of UK residents or nationals returning to the UK after being engaged in terrorist activity abroad. They raise interesting issues about the responsibility of governments, and what society expects of young people (in both cases in their twenties) who have participated in extremist organisations. The natural reaction is that they have committed criminal acts and should be punished accordingly. However, many ask the question of whether the case of Mr Sawar will discourage other family members from reporting the activities of their children or other family members to the authorities given the length of the sentence given.  The case sends a message that involvement in terrorist activities will be treated harshly but it is at odds with the government’s wish to engage parents in the process of de-radicalisation. Will it not deter parents from assisting the authorities? Indeed Mr Sarwar’s mother says as much. 

In the second case where Ms Shakil showed remorse for her actions, the question raised is whether such a sentence adequately reflects her “change of heart”. In both cases, whether prison will deter them from the ideologies which they became involved in or whether they will be fuelled in prison leaving them more or less radicalised and embittered with the state.  Many argue that, in the battle of ideologies, the emphasis must be on changing hearts and minds, re-educating and integrating into the community. To make sure people are not further alienated and the Sarwars and Shakils are not the terrorists of tomorrow on our doorstep. Is it in the public interest to prosecute?  Even, if so, should the sentence reflect extenuating circumstances, e.g. co-operation with the authorities, remorse, and the provision of information to the police/CPS.  There is little hint of these considerations in the cases prosecuted so far but there should be.

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