[Draft: links and picture to be added; first published in PrivateMilitary.org]
With a sense of inevitability, on June 16, 2014 the former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said in the Commons that “the number of UK-linked individuals fighting in Syria to include approximately 400 British nationals and other UK-linked individuals who could present a particular risk should they return to the UK. Some of these are, inevitably, fighting with ISIL” (see transcript | or watch video). This was an unsettling yet overdue acknowledgment that the UK has become a noteworthy launch pad for wannabe jihadists. Unfortunately, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s answers to the problem, besides tardy, sound more like government rhetoric than a viable plan of action.
To begin with, the problem of young British nationals joining terrorist causes abroad is not a phenomenon as new as William Hague implicitly acknowledged. Since the early stages of the Syrian conflict, there have been people with British accents bragging about their involvement in jihadi causes across the Arabic world and elsewhere in forums used by extremists. Even conventional social networking sites such as Facebook have been used to chat about and encourage people to join jihadi movements for a long while. Most people just did not pay attention to the issue of British jihadists, mostly young men but also young women, until news channels started to include on their regular coverage footage of British jihadists alongside graphic videos showing the beheading of people.
Even if we the general public could for a long time claim ignorance on the issue, it is unacceptable for the British government to adopt the same aptitude. Didn’t we learn recently that the intelligence services have had full access to all our personal communications all along? What is this intelligence used for then? Did you hear PM Cameron (or any of his Eton pals in government) speak about the problem of British jihadists and likely plan of action to tackle it before the ISIS terrorist movement exploded? We just marked another anniversary of 9/11. Do we need another 7/7 in the UK? But this time perhaps involving beheadings in central London or other town centre?
Yet, against the backdrop of a growing and detectable security problem since at least 7/7, PM Cameron went ahead with his plan to shrink the UK forces to levels that have crippled the UK defense capabilities. Indeed, we wrote back in March 2013 that the British Army is on its way to become a ceremonial force, i.e. one heavily dependent on a (part-time) territorial force.
The government rhetoric reads different off course. After Hague spoke on the Commons, PM Cameron spoke of the seriousness of the problem and promised to do “absolutely everything we can” to protect the homeland. Nonetheless, a week later the news media revealed that plans to reduce the counter-terror budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by about fifty percent (from £30 to £15million) were going ahead. Likewise, at the NATO summit in Wales, Cameron was on an election campaign mood tried hard to look close and personal with U.S. president Back Obama. He used the speech skills that ultimately got him elected and proclaimed bravely that “transforming our ability to project power globally whether independently or with our allies.” However, as he spoke, he seemed to have forgotten that the reduced armed forces he championed cannot match the ambitions of his words. Is this government rhetoric or a real-world action plan?
So now we have to live a future in which the risk of terrorist attacks perpetrated by UK-based people has increased manifold and unnecessarily. In the process, the UK passport has been silently and inevitably downgraded –Who knows? You or anyone with a British passport might be a terrorist! One wonders if William Hague left office not because he simply wants ‘to write,’ but because he wants to distance himself from this security debacle.