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Radicalized Westerners May Face Prison If They Go Home


The masked killer of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff spoke with a British accent in ISIS videos. That was a very public reminder of the dangers posed by radicalized Westerners. The British government estimates that around 500 men and women from that country have travelled to fight alongside militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Some of them have already come home. Others looking to do so fear that they could face prison time in the U.K. Peter Neumann is the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, and he joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: ISIS has received enormous attention in the past few months. Has all this publicity, so far as you can tell, increased or diminish the flow of British fighters to the Middle East?

NEUMANN: I think the publicity hasn't had much of an impact. I think what's been more important is the declaration of the caliphate, which happened in June, when ISIS came out saying, we now have an Islamic State; we're building something that is truly historical. And that came on top of all the momentum they've had with their recent military victories. So a lot of people thought, this is actually really happening, and I can be a part of that.

SIEGEL: I gather you have been communicating with someone who says that there are 20 Britons or so who've gone to fight, and now they want to come home. What's the story that you're hearing?

NEUMANN: So from the beginning of the conflict, we've collected online social media profiles of fighters that are down in Syria and Iraq - Western fighters. Last week, someone came forward and said to us, I'm with ISIS in Syria. And I'm with 20 other people. And we're feeling trapped. We came here because we wanted to help the people of Syria. Our group got usurped by ISIS. We didn't join ISIS to begin with. We're now part of ISIS. We don't agree with it. We want to come home, but right now we don't really have an opportunity because, number one - defectors from ISIS are being executed, and number two - if we go back to Britain and we somehow manage to get back to Britain, we're going to be arrested for a very long time.

SIEGEL: Is that clear, by the way? - that if they came back to Britain they would be arrested and likely convicted and incarcerated for a very long time?

NEUMANN: I think it's far from clear. I doubt that, first of all, government knows about every returnee. And secondly, I doubt that they will be able to convict everyone in a court of law. What matters is that right now, the government in Britain and a lot of other European countries are sending the message to foreign fighters to not come back. And that's what foreign fighters are hearing right now.

SIEGEL: Do you believe that they're sincere, those people? Or is it possibly a way of getting, you know, a dozen jihadists back into Britain where they might do something nasty?

NEUMANN: We talked to them. And obviously, I have no idea whether they are sincere. I think they took considerable risk in contacting us. I would, of course, not take their word for it. And we asked them, if you were given the opportunity to come back and you had to go through a tough mandatory de-radicalization program and you had to accept that MI5 and the police will be following you around for maybe two or three years - if you had very tough security restrictions imposed on you, would you still come back? And they said yes. And I think that maybe this is an opportunity to be explored.

SIEGEL: If, indeed, the declaration of the caliphate is what has stimulated British volunteers to go fight for ISIS, would anything short of destroying the caliphate and destroying ISIS stop that flow?

NEUMANN: I think it's important that you're stopping the momentum. And what's already happened over the past two weeks with the American airstrikes is that essentially the momentum has been stopped - that there have not been further military victories and that ISIS has been contained. And if there is a further intensification of military efforts by the enemies of ISIS and if the caliphate is being pushed back, then I think the glamour of the caliphate will soon be destroyed. And it will no longer energize people on the ground as much as it has for the past two or three months.

SIEGEL: Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, spoke with us from New York. Mr. Neumann, thank you very much.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.