Former UK counter-terrorism chief Richard Barrett's recent comments have drawn to light the thorny question of just how threatening returnee 'foreign fighters' from Iraq and Syria are to Western governments. While there is no easy answer to this, there are a number of historical precedents from which we can begin to understand that this is not just political 'scaremongering', as some have argued.
Certainly, it has become more prominent of late, but the phenomenon of British fighters travelling to conflict zones in order to join up with jihadist groups is not new. Hundreds of Britons went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet occupation, many more travelled to Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir in the 1990s.
However, before Bin Laden's declaration of total war against the West, the after-effects of the phenomenon were markedly different. Returnees, as a rule, were not deemed a threat to British national security, largely because they did not return to carry out attacks on British soil. However, ever since al-Qaeda adopted the strategy of focusing on the Far Enemy, the level of threat these individuals pose has changed significantly. With an estimated 400-500 British foreign fighters currently in Iraq and Syria, as well as others in Pakistan and Somalia, it is imperative that we understand better the motivations of those who go to fight abroad.
Once the ill-fated 'War on Terror' commenced in 2003, al-Qaeda's job became a lot easier. The thousands upon thousands of civilian casualties that came at the hands of Western bombs was better propaganda than al-Qaeda could have hoped for. On the back of them, Bin Laden and his mentor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, achieved their goal of galvanising a small but significant number of Muslims into waging war against the West.
British nationals were led to travel to conflict zones with a strong jihadist presence, such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, from which they returned, further radicalised. A handful of them, a small, but unpredictable number, soon made plans to attack their homeland. Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, travelled to jihadist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan before attempting to detonate explosives on a trans-Atlantic flight; the 7/7 bombers travelled to the same region to receive training before their assault upon British society in 2006; and Umar Farouk Abu Mutallab (best known as the "underpants bomber") visited jihadist training camps in Yemen before he began to plan acts against the West. Clearly, then, training and fighting abroad is positively correlated with committing terrorism-related offences.
With this history of British extremists returning from abroad to carry out attacks at home, combined with the ever-powerful global jihadist narrative that encourages such attacks, we have every reason to be fearful. These fears should be compounded by the fact that the war in Syria has been a hugely effective recruitment tool for a new generation of British jihadists who are currently fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (Isis). This is a group deemed too extreme for al-Qaeda, one which is driven by the most virulent and, seemingly, popular strain of jihadism to date.
Jihadist would-be foreign fighters do not appear out of thin air. They emerge from a milieu in which extremist thinking is normalised and an alternative form of identity emerges, which is inherently aggressive and confrontational towards modern secular society. Countering extremist recruitment requires creating a social climate that does not tolerate the proliferation of extremism. This entails entering certain spaces, such as the internet, prisons and educational establishments, in order to de-legitimise extremist ideology.
With regards to the internet, which groups like Isis use to great effect, we need to encourage a new wave of online activism in which cyber activists critique the extremist narrative and discredit the organisations and individuals that promote it. We need a lot more de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation work to be done in prisons and not allow them to become breeding grounds for extremism. Educational establishments should not offer uncritical platforms to hate preachers and should not be afraid to champion democratic and liberal values.
The current phenomenon of jihadist foreign fighters is likely to be with us for many years. This means that we can't afford to rely on a few strongly worded statements from politicians and hope it just goes away. We need a co-ordinated response that incorporates Muslims, non-Muslims, civil society, the public sector and the private sector. We as a society need to become more resilient to extremism by championing values we all share and creating an inclusive civic identity that incorporates people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Abandoning your families and responsibilities for conflict zones, in which you are used by power-hungry extremist ideologues, is not noble or glamorous, it is irresponsible and naïve. That message needs to get through, and we all have a duty in making sure it does.