With ISIS in Syria and Iraq almost fully defeated, western nations now have to contend what to do with hundreds of fighters who left their shores to make the long journey to establish the caliphate but now wish to return.
Different countries it seems have adopted different strategies. For example, the Dutch and some other European countries have a de-radicalization program already in place, awaiting the returnees. At the other end of the spectrum, the US will simply arrest them and put them through an aggressive domestic legal system.
There are also reports of a major European country having dispatched their special forces to work with the Iraqis to “retire” ISIS fighters ensuring none of them ever have the chance to come back.
The UK on the other hand has embraced a shrewder approach. The have simply stripped identified ISIS members of their nationality and passport ensuring they are no longer the problem of the UK government.
This has caused much consternation with civil rights activists with many arguing that the UK must not abandon basic legal principles and in fact what is needed is new legislation to deal with this new threat as it is clear that current laws are insufficient.
I believe that if there is strong evidence, that someone has been an active and willing member of ISIS, the state should come down on them with its full force. I also believe that the traditional offences, which Britain charges potential terrorists with are not enough.
British subjects who plot to destroy the fabric of British life, destroy government buildings, transport or businesses, who sow fear into the seam of the daily life, who seek to rupture the day-to-day workings of the British economy or the business of state, or who act to spread disorder and fear, should be considered not just terrorists, but traitors.
They should be charged with treason. This would not be so new – it used to be used against Irish insurgents.
Treason, after all, essentially means betraying one’s nation. All British nationals owe allegiance to the Queen, wherever they are. If you have the privilege to have a British passport, you should not be plotting violence against her subjects.
If there is strong evidence, that someone has been active and willing member of ISIS, the state should come down on them with full force
The main counterargument would probably be that such terrorists have not committed treason. Arson, murder, terrorism or other violent crimes, perhaps; but treason – no.
But I would argue that although these latter offences might speak to the specific physical characteristics of the crime, they don’t address the mental one – those of the intention of the crime – at all.
A terrorist is not the same as someone trying to cause physical damage who does not know why. They are seeking very specifically to rupture British security as a nation, damage our institutions, and disrupt the quality of British daily life.
And here’s the point. They do not want to do these things to damage a building or cause injuries in a crowd. They want to do them because these things are British. That deserves its own form of recognition in law, and ‘treason’ is the offence which best captures it.
The offence of treason would also bring with it other benefits, first and foremost automatic heavy punishments. Britain has abolished the death penalty, and so the old institutional punishment for treason is not available.
But it seems logical that this modern form of treason be automatically punishable by the nearest equivalent – a life sentence. This should not be the kind of life sentence, which, after time off for good behaviour, means a few years. It should mean life, without parole, or the possibility of parole.
This would be the start of making a link, which should be fundamental to our national life. If you are British, you do not plot against Britain. If you want the protections, security, services, and yes, freedoms which this country has fought to be able to give its citizens over centuries, then you do not respond with violence.
In short, it is high time we brought the offence of treason back. These terrorists are not just criminals – they are traitors. The legal system should acknowledge it. I would wager it would make us all safer as well.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
Originally published in Al Arabiya