LONDON, UK — As UK special forces seek the British Islamic State militant suspected of murdering US journalist James Foley, the government is redoubling efforts to stop Brits from going to Syria and to prosecute those who return.
Government advisers have called for the return of “control orders,” controversial Blair-era legislation that allows terror suspects to be electronically tagged and placed under house arrest.
Home Secretary Theresa May has publicly reiterated her office’s ability to strip certain Brits abroad of their citizenship.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, often discussed as a future Conservative party leader, on Monday suggested a law that would assume anyone visiting a war zone without first notifying authorities is doing so for terrorist purposes.
About 500 British citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the myriad militant groups fighting in that country’s civil war.
But Syria is not the only overseas battleground where Brits have voluntarily taken up arms. Nor is the phenomenon of Brits joining conflicts abroad new. In the 1930s, thousands of Brits went to Spain to volunteer with the leftist republicans fighting General Francisco Franco's fascists.
More recently, Brits have joined fights in Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.
The dozens of British citizens currently fighting with the Israel Defense Forces have not encountered legal obstacles to their service. Neither did Brits who traveled to Libya in 2011 to join the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi.
The UK has no consistent policy on who can and can’t travel abroad to fight. Most volunteer soldiers travel to their destinations on commercial flights, making it difficult for authorities to gauge their motives on departure.
Instead, decisions on whether to pursue charges when they return home are made on a “case by case basis,” a Home Office spokeswoman said.
The experiences of British volunteers in Israel and Libya show how differently UK law treats foreign fighters, depending on whom they’re fighting with.
The IDF allows non-Israeli Jewish men under 24 and women under 21 with at least one Jewish grandparent to enlist. A support group for families of British IDF enlistees called Mahal Mums has its own Facebook page.
In July, the IDF told UK’s Channel 4 that there were about 100 British citizens currently serving in their ranks. An IDF spokeswoman was unable to provide an updated number on Monday.
"I believe that it is important to take responsibility and defend my country like the majority of the rest of the society has done there,” IDF enlistee Darren Cohen, 23, told the Huffington Post UK. The King’s College London graduate has family in Israel and is planning to immigrate there.
UK law makes exceptions for people joining another country’s official army, a spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said.
“If the military of any country operate outside of the law, they [Britons fighting abroad] can of course be investigated appropriately, but that would generally be for war crimes or domestic criminal offenses,” the office said.
In 2011, dozens of UK nationals — more than 100, by the estimate of the London-based advocacy group Cage — went to Libya to join the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi. Most were Muslims of Libyan descent.
Many had previously been on the UK’s terror watchlist as members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had banned as a terror organization in 2005. Shortly after UN sanctions against Libya ended in 2003, Gaddafi pledged to dismantle the country’s weapons program, and Western companies were granted access to Libya’s oil in 2004.
But by the time of Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, the UK was supporting the rebels. Brits wishing to fight with them met no resistance upon leaving the UK, or legal problems when they returned.
“I explained that I had been out there working to remove Qaddafi and stop him oppressing our people,” a Brit stopped at Heathrow Airport told Cage.
“They [security officials] seemed to be happy with this response and permitted me to return to my home. This was near the end of 2011 and I have never been hassled since, despite having returned to Libya on many occasions.”
Days after Foley’s murder, Home Secretary May said that any British citizen returning from Syria or Iraq would be investigated and could face prosecution for terror offenses. Sixty-nine people have been arrested on such charges this year, compared to 24 in all of 2013.
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In May, Portsmouth man Mashudur Choudhury, 31, became the first Briton convicted on terror charges related to his trip to Syria.
As scrutiny of those returning from Syria intensified in the last year, some have argued that security measures should apply to all Brits volunteering for foreign conflicts.
“If we’re talking about stopping people, Muslims, stopping them from going over to other countries and fighting, why are we not doing that as a blanket for stopping anyone that goes over abroad to fight in other countries?” said Farooq Siddiqui, a former manager for Prevent, the UK government’s anti-radicalization program, on a news talk show in July.
Britons fighting abroad weren’t considered a big problem in the years before Islamic terrorism threatened domestic security in the UK.
“At first it was, ‘Who cares?’” said Royal United Services Institute research fellow Raffaello Pantucci, summing up authorities’ attitudes toward self-styled soldiers fighting abroad.
That changed after 2004’s Operation Crevice, which intercepted an Al Qaeda-backed terror plot in the UK, and the London public transit bombings of 2005.
Both involved Brits who had traveled abroad for training. That fact drove home for authorities that experiences and connections made abroad could have serious security implications back in the UK.
Security officials have been worried about this in Syria since early in the conflict. Returning British fighters could be foot soldiers in a terror network, or they could be lone rogues determined to carry out their own crimes — a much more difficult threat to stop.
“From a security service perspective, a network is easier to penetrate. They communicate with each other, and if they’re communicating, you can listen in,” Pantucci said.
“But if you’ve got individuals who are basically going out there and fighting, and coming back and deciding they want to do something without telling anyone what they’re doing, how are you going to stop that?”
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