History Lessons For All Policy Makers and Young Terrorists

Article written by Guest Writer Kiron Reid

On 7 July the press reported that 19 year old Syed Choudhury had been jailed for three years and four months for making plans to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, IS. The teenager, originally from Bradford, UK, was living in Cardiff. His defense counsel Abdul Iqbal QC “said the evidence showed Choudhury’s enthusiasm to travel to Turkey or Syria, but said that Choudhury had not got further than making inquiries.” He highlighted “naivety, immaturity and lack of insight”

Syed Choudhury will have plenty of time to read Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, written in similar circumstances. Brendan Behan (1923-1964), the late poet, playwright and hellraiser was a young IRA ‘volunteer’ (recruit) at the beginning of the second world war and was picked up on a mission to bomb the Liverpool docks. Behan’s brother, Dominic, wrote a famous and thoughtful anti-war song ‘The Patriot Game’. I am shocked that no official or researcher ever seems to analyse any comparison between young men (mostly) throwing their lives away for a malignant view of a prophet, and young men throwing their lives away for a romantic or vengeful view of perfidious Albion and Irish liberty.

Syed Choudhury

Syed Choudhury will serve three years, four months at a young offenders’ institution

While Behan was from Dublin, supporters of Irish related and other violent national or religious political causes have often been British born and bred. The obvious connection is young men, often second generation in other countries from that of their parents’ birth, finding a cause and resorting to violence. Sometimes they die; sometimes they live out lives in jail; often they grow out of violence; and sometimes they carry on, wedded to it – as have and will the post-war and current ‘armed force’ supporters of modern violent ‘Irish’ groups. They were not religious fanatics (or using the carte blanche of religion for crimes) but there must psychologically and socially have been similar processes that led certain young men to turn to violence when most others did not.

It shocks me in the debate over ‘radicalisation’ and ‘returning jihadis’ how little current political leaders, policy makers and commentators seem to think about any parallels or comparisons with history. In many ways Al Qaeda branded terrorism, Islamic State, and their African affiliates and other extremists are unlike anything we’ve seen for a century or more, but the debates since 2001 have been conducted as if in a vacuum of second half twentieth century, let alone earlier history. Perhaps to some deeply involved the recent historical background is obvious.

Policy makers and advisers need to recognise that some of those committed to violence in the past reformed and some can be encouraged to do so now. Stiff sentences may not be the way to win over supporters needed in Muslim communities, when the sentences are far harsher than for more serious ‘ordinary crimes’. Nor will the lack of rehabilitation in British prisons assist reintegration into a modern, tolerant society.

There’s a British academic group called History and Policy. Their mission statement for me has always sounded both totally common sense and sadly much needed. The principle that policy making should be informed by an understanding of history is undeniable. In law making, and the legal and justice system, it is also essential. A retired Irish barrister, Florence O’Donoghue, of the Inner Temple, was the first person I can recall in legal journals who wrote specifically pointing out how failures in anti-terrorist policy regarding Ireland in the past could be compared with proposals and laws enacted after September 11, 2001.

Historic and modern law and policy is covered in the books of academics Clive Walker, Steven Greer, Bonner, Dickson, Paul Wilkinson, Richard English and others but despite the scholarship the comparison seems to allude policy makers. Where is the social and psychological analysis? When does immature play acting end, or genuine repentance start? The criminal justice system is a very blunt tool that doesn’t address these issues well. I doubt that confiscating passports of citizens to prevent return would have been any more effective in the past than now as a strategy either.

Did the British Empire confiscate passports from the Irish cavalry brigade who fought with the Boers in the late nineteenth century? Was Robert Noonan (1870-1911) jailed for his support for that cavalry brigade? Would he then have written the Socialist landmark The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as Robert Tressell? – published posthumously as a result of his daughter Kathleen’s perseverance. Would Erskine Childers (1870-1922) have been less a propagandist for Irish independence if he had been told he was no longer British and banned from the country? Jailing him in England might have saved this patriot’s life from later execution by the Irish Government.

International Brigades3

Would the British and French governments have stopped members of the International Brigades by banning them from returning from Spain during the Spanish Civil War? Did the Home Office cancel passports from International Brigaders and force them to stay in exile? It tried to stop them going, it tried to stop the influx to Spain of socialists and communists and anarchists, adventurers and some assorted idealists from joining the fight. The repatriation of International Brigaders was achieved, although Franco did not give up his foreign aid, and the extremists who returned did not destabilise Britain. These were not jihadists but many were certainly dupes of the evil Soviet regime under Stalin, and others more knowing fellow travellers with it – of course its full evil only became apparent much later. While some who fought the nationalists in Spain (including an Austrian Jewish refugee I knew, Eric) were interned, the skills of others were later valued in the fight against the Nazis.

I don’t compare the activities of International Brigaders (or POUM volunteers like George Orwell) to IS supporters but the flaws in the cancelling passports policy of our Conservative Home Secretary seem obvious. Has the US administration neutralised Edward Snowden by trapping him in Moscow? They have suffered a political defeat and handed the propaganda advantage to a really dangerous and brutal elected dictator, Vladimir Putin.

Undoubtedly ‘Islamist’ fighters and sympathisers returning to Britain from Syria are a real and serious risk to our security. Some are dangerous and others are not but how can the police differentiate? Those trying to go, and those returning, need to be identified, clearly vetted and at least kept an eye on; some need to be prosecuted and incarcerated. The same huge task for the police and port authorities applies to the participants and supporters of other extremists in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan /Pakistan. Some will be a danger to Britain but others may have repented, changed their minds, or given up on immature notions of creating some perfect (for men) Muslim state. On returning jihadists who are British citizens, reform and rehabilitation should be encouraged for those who will accept democracy, tolerance and diversity.

Further Reading

Majida Sarwar, mother of Yusuf Sarwar of Birmingham, jailed for 12 years on voluntary return from Syria with a friend, after their families cooperated with the police. “His mother Majida told the BBC she believed the sentence would discourage other Muslims from helping the police.” 7 December 2014

U.K. woman who told police her son joined a militant group in Syria now regrets her decision. 27 February 2015

Father of Nahin Ahmed. “If anyone’s children go to Syria now, no one will tell the police because they will be too scared to tell them this.” 11 December 2014

Kiron Reid is active on political and law reform, Liberal politics and environmentalism. A former lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool, UK (where he is an honorary research fellow) and volunteer honorary visiting professor at Zaporizhzhia National University in SE Ukraine. Kiron has worked as an election observer for OSCE in three regions of Ukraine, and in the Balkans.

2 Thoughts on “History Lessons For All Policy Makers and Young Terrorists

  1. Pianosa, Unthought lessons of history. Addendum.

    The thoughtful reader will have spotted the obvious historical connection that I didn’t make in this article – to the anarchist or nihilist outrages across Europe of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alex Butterworth’s “The World that Never Was” originally published by Bodley Head in 2011, covers this ground. It covers the people and groups that I was thinking of exactly about the Anarchist terror of the turn of the 19th Century (and Simon Futty reminded me of the Nihilists). I was going to talk about the anarchist outrages in this article for the Pianosa Chronicle, but was already mixing up various ideas and examples and couldn’t remember my examples well enough.

    What is interesting is the book pointed out that much of what was presented as random mindless violence by the media and authorities was actually much more organised and planned. That may be the case today – or it may be that copy cat killers and self-publicists wanting a quick route to notoriety jump on the ISIS / IS bandwagon just as the Al Qaeda bandwagon was popular a decade ago, under the Fu Manchu offices of Osama Bin Laden – genuinely evil but surely a spectre rather than real mastermind after being cleared out of Afghanistan. (I’m not a conspiracy theorist but believed Bin Laden had been buried under a pile of mud in Tora Bora in 2001 and that it was a ghost taking credit after that).

    “The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents”
    This summary is taken from Amazon (.co.uk):
    “The last years of the nineteenth century saw the birth of a new phenomenon: international terrorism. Bombings and assassinations shook the great cities of Europe and America, threatening social order. Fiendish networks of anarchist conspiritors were blamed and the public whipped into a frenzy of anxiety.

    The reality was rather different. These dramatic events were only the most visible part of a longer, clandestine struggle waged between the forces of revolution and reaction, in which little was as it seemed. Alex Butterworth interweaves group biography, cultural history and meticulous detective work to create a revelatory account of the age. Both intimate and panoramic, it is a story with uncanny resonances for today.”

    The postscript was how many of the radicals on the left ended up being killed by the Bolsheviks and Stalinists. I knew that but it is still a sobering reminder to those who overlook the atrocities in Communist Russia. It seems it is not only purported followers of Christian and Islamic religious belief who spend a lot of time killing adherents to different factions of the beliefs they purport to hold in the name of a true way – or blatant cruel power.

    Thank you to Nicholas Willmott, bookdealer of Cardiff, for this reference, and to Nick, and Simon Futty of Cardiff, for relevant discussion. Nick has published an account of his family’s (wholly innocent) role in the Sidney Street siege of 1912. “The Shimans in Sidney Street, 1911″ http://nicholaswillmott.tripod.com/id39.htm

    Addendum penned 05/09, 11/10/2015 and added 8 February 2016.

  2. Pingback: History Lessons For All Policy Makers and Young Terrorists – a guest post on the Pianosa Chronicle website. – Kiron Reid

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