HCDC INQUIRY – GLOBAL ISLAMIST TERRORISM – MINISTERS [EXTRACTS] – 2 April 2019
Witnesses: Lieutenant-General Doug Chalmers, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations); Chris Felton, Head of Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, Home Office; Rt Hon Mark Lancaster TD MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Ministry of Defence; and Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP, Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime, Home Office.
Q78 Chairman [Dr Julian Lewis]: Good morning and welcome to this final session on global Islamist terrorism where we are blessed with the presence of not one, but two Ministers – a Security Minister and a Defence Minister – as well as a senior official accompanying each. I will ask the two officials who are here to briefly introduce themselves for the record.
Chris Felton: My name is Chris Felton. I am the head of the Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, which is the cross-departmental team responsible for our strategy for doing counter-terrorism overseas.
Lieutenant-General Chalmers: My name is Doug Chalmers. I am Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for military strategy and operations. Pertinent to today, from 2015 to 2016, I was embedded in the US as a deputy commander in the coalition joint taskforce that was leading the counter-Daesh fight over that period.
Q79 Dr Lewis: Equally succinctly, I invite whichever Minister who would like to do so to set out for us, given our primary focus on the work of the Ministry of Defence, the way in which that relates to the work of the security dimensions of the Government’s structure.
Mark Lancaster: From our perspective, the short version is that, obviously, this is effectively a Home Office lead and we support it where we can and where we are asked to.
Ben Wallace: That is pretty much it. Counter-terrorism investigations are effectively owned and started here under MI5. In the pursuit of people doing bad things, both at home and abroad, the Government effort calls on support from a range of actors, from the other intelligence agencies to the MoD, to deal with or capture the terrorist threat.
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Q83 Dr Lewis: Just before we move off this topic, you mentioned that you cannot defeat an ideology by military means alone. That is absolutely true, but where, if at all, does the concept of containment fit into this? The Northern Ireland operation took 38 years from beginning to end, and it did indeed, as I think Mark Francois said earlier, end with a political solution, but it ended with a political solution because of the work of the military and security forces in showing one side – an insurgency – that it could not win. Does one not have to face, in certain sorts of conflict, the possibility that you are not going to win, and you are not even going to get a political settlement for a very long time, but that does not mean to say you should not have a policy of containment to make sure that the other side does not win?
Mark Lancaster: That is a perfectly reasonable point on the basis that we are probably naive to think that, ultimately, this is going to be a 100% solution. We can go to a certain point where we do contain, and the geographical defeat of Daesh now is a definite step in the right direction, but are we going to delude ourselves that we have removed all the threat to the UK because now nobody is potentially a foreign fighter still in Syria? Of course not. But we do seek to get to a point of minimising the threat to the UK.
Q84 Dr Lewis: Doug, does the strategy of containment figure anywhere in your thinking as an MoD military professional, as it were, or is that regarded as a relic of the Cold War?
Lieutenant-General Chalmers: If I can go back, to bridge on to your question, Mr Francois, my career has spanned all the various elements. As I mentioned, I had the privilege of serving back in Iraq on the counter-Daesh thing in 2015-16, and what we learned there in terms of building partner capacity is that there is training and there is definitely some equipping for the task that they need. There is some advising, which helps them perform better against the threats that we come to. Then there is also assist. We have talked about the targeting element and how we might help that. But a lot of that is helping them.
This is what we have learned, particularly on the counter-Daesh bit: it needs a local political solution, not one sent from far away. Often, we are advising and supporting the local forces to find their way to that local solution, which, just as you described on Northern Ireland, can be very hard. So sometimes we are supporting the local militaries in finding the line between some sort of containment to allow that political solution to come through.
The answer to both of you is: absolutely, but each problem we face is slightly different in what the causes are behind that – as it was in Northern Ireland – and how they reach those solutions. Different countries do have a strategy of containment as they find it, and our part of it is to try to advise and assist them to deliver it in a way that meets our CTNs as well as coming to some sort of solution in the meantime.
Q85 Dr Lewis: The problem with very long campaigns is that if you are an external body and you are taking casualties, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain them. But if it is your country, and we are working through local forces, basically they have a much higher incentive, do they not?
Lieutenant-General Chalmers: They do.
Mark Lancaster: On that point, if I may add one thing on casualties, I would like to pay a tribute. I would like the Committee to note that, when it comes to our partners, over this conflict the Iraqi security forces have had 13,964 soldiers killed in action and 62,738 wounded. Equally, the Syrian Democratic Forces have had 1,512 soldiers killed and 3,526 wounded in action. It is right to put that, and our recognition of it, on record.
Dr Lewis: Thank you very much for doing that.
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Q91 Dr Lewis: … I think we are in danger of over-focusing on the UK counter-terrorism situation, which is not our main thing. We are talking primarily about global Islamist terrorism. To wrap this up and to bring you into it, Chris, if I may, has any analysis been done on the extent to which our military action overseas has impacted on the recruitment of people at home?
Chris Felton: If there has been, I am not aware of it specifically. I know the drivers for recruitment and radicalisation at home are complex: a combination of both societal and personal factors. I know that the efforts of the global coalition against Daesh have radically reduced the capability of the communications efforts within Syria and Iraq to put further influences into UK communities. That has helped to reduce the risk of radicalisation. The narrative of success of the so-called caliphate has also been reduced, which is also a factor in the attractiveness of the organisation.
Q92 Dr Lewis: It is certainly true that, whenever people who have been radicalised at home are questioned about their motives and why they support atrocities, they very often couch it in terms of revenge for perceived military oppression in lands far away from the United Kingdom, isn’t it?
Chris Felton: I am not an expert in that area. I would not be surprised if that was the kind of language that they used, without it necessarily being the underlying driver of it.
Dr Lewis: Ben, briefly?
Mr Wallace: There have been studies. We regularly look, using the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, at motivations, why people do things, who they are, who makes up the current population who have been involved in foiled attack plots and so on. This is certainly a factor, but far and away the biggest factor is a thing like UK foreign policy overall, as opposed to the military itself. How the UK deals with Islamophobia can be exploited in communities, certainly around Islamist terrorism – whether there is one rule for one and one rule for others. There is a huge amount of distortion in the propaganda, but in no way is UK military action the No. 1, No. 2 or even No. 3 factor in why people are being radicalised.
Q93 Dr Lewis: Not necessarily UK military action, but perhaps American military action?
Mr Wallace: You will hear phrases like “the west” or “crusader military action”.
Q94 Dr Lewis: Taken as a whole, how much is that a signpost to radicalisation?
Mr Wallace: It is a strong part of their recruiting narratives, but it is still the fact that few people go beyond – They become extremists, but the proportion of people who cross the Rubicon to go to violence is very small.
Q95 Dr Lewis: Okay. Chris, I’d like you to take a moment or two to tell us about the work of JICTU, and particularly how your organisation develops our overseas counter-terrorism strategy.
Chris Felton: The first thing to say is that our overseas counter-terrorism strategy is an integral part of CONTEST, the revised version of which was published in June last year. There is a chapter in there on overseas counter-terrorism, which I think is the first time there has been an entire chapter on it in CONTEST.
The way that we develop the strategy is through the NSSIG processes, which have already been mentioned. That is headed up by NSSIG CT and Tom Hurd. Through that process, we bring together the different players – with both domestic interests and, crucially, overseas interests in counter-terrorism – to identify our priorities and objectives for doing counter-terrorism overseas. What we have now is a strategy that sets out common objectives at global, regional and country levels for the things that we want to achieve.
Based on the specific circumstances of each of our partner countries, we develop a range of collaboration or activity with them, based on their willingness to engage with us, their ability to comply with human rights obligations and the type of risk to the UK there, and then we decide what activity we should undertake. The MoD is a very important partner in that. Two members of my team are from the MoD. They are working with us and are fully involved in the agreement of the counter-terrorism priorities, which we agree across Government.
Q96 Dr Lewis: Obviously without asking you to lay out your strategy in too much detail for the benefit of our enemies, can you give us some basic assumptions on which you operate, particularly in relation to the role of the UK military?
Chris Felton: We break down what we try to achieve along similar lines to the four p’s of CONTEST. We have a strand of activity on preventing radicalisation and removing the drivers for radicalisation. We have work around denying groups access to the materials and resources that they need to conduct their activities. We support countries in the investigation and prosecution of those activities. We also have a strand on protection and preparing a response.
There is a particularly important role for the MoD in the second strand – around degrading terrorist capability – through the global coalition that has been focusing on degrading capability within Syria and Iraq. There are also the other areas that the Minister talked about, such as developing capability on border control or disabling devices. Those are also important elements within the strand 4 “protection and preparing” part of our work.
Dr Lewis: Thank you very much; that is very clear.
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Q123 John Spellar: You talked very helpfully about how you have managed to interdict a lot of the narrative on social media, but how the narrative develops within the more general mass media – sometimes deliberately by some mass media arms of various organisations – gives publicity to the lines of these groups. How do you go about trying to counter that?
Mr Wallace: The mass media is quite a challenge. When reporting on different community politics, attention to detail is really important. Being lazy – “It’s Muslim” – whips up all sorts of tensions and is certainly exploited by ISIS/Daesh and so on. It is also about making sure they understand the role they play in spreading.
I will be going to see a number of online editors of major broadcasters, because we see that when the likes of ISIL have broadcast their initial new publication or beheading video in the past, that has reached a point where we are all working to shut that down as quickly as possible, but once it has got out further and a mainstream media outlet picks that up and puts it on to its online platform, you get a tsunami of second-tier broadcast around the country and the world. That is really dangerous, and they need to have that pointed out to them. Sometimes, they do not even change the title of the video, so while they might cut out the very nasty bit, if I wanted to find the video I could do so easily because they have told you where to find it and what it is called.
So they have a role that we are going to have to help them with. I am not going to ban freedom of speech and all that stuff, but ultimately it is quite disturbing when you see that broadcast second wave. The Government is going to publish the online harms White Paper imminently – I am promised – and within that will be both a legislative framework as an option and other ways of trying to ensure that people take a duty of care towards what they publish online.
Q124 Dr Lewis: Let us pursue that a little further. To what extent and how effectively do you work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on its efforts to make the internet safer?
Mr Wallace: The online harms White Paper will be a joint paper between the Home Office and DCMS. “Good cop, bad cop”, as I sometimes say – in the Home Office they are not bamboozled by beanbags and Google. It will be about trying to deal with the very real threat that we see, certainly in the security space, posed by the online space. So we work very closely to the extent that we share drafts. There is the inevitable interdepartmental “We’d like to do more in that and you do less in that” and vice versa. But, yes, it is now joined up. Everyone across the international community has lost patience; something has got to be done.
Q125 Dr Lewis: Given the rate at which material can be uploaded via social media and the internet generally, would it be true to say that if the companies in charge of these sites will not take the initiative in preventing this from happening, no other power on earth can possibly take them down more quickly than they can be re-uploaded? Without the total co-operation of the people who own and manage and run these sites and make this facility available, any individual, no matter how crazed or malevolent, can publish things to the entire world. It seems intrinsically an impossibility to suggest that if companies allow this material to be put up, any outside agency, any separate agency, could take it down more quickly than people could replace it.
Mr Wallace: We have always said, and we have seen in the rise in response, that these companies could do more, quicker, to prevent it from going up.
Q126 Dr Lewis: That was not the question; I am going to come on to what the companies could do. Sorry, but I want us to stick to the point. The point is that if the companies themselves will not stop this stuff going into the ether, then no matter how effectively any outside agency, blocking agency, reporting agency – whatever you care to name – tries to counter it, there is no way they can possibly take down this material as quickly as it can be constantly re-uploaded, is there?
Mr Wallace: They can contain it. They can’t stop it entirely. The quicker anyone can divert it from its initial publication, the less chance it has to echo around the world. So you can certainly contain it. At the moment, if you are a dedicated ISIL follower using a virtual private network, using a messaging system that is not within our jurisdictions, you can certainly speak to yourself. Reaching further into our communities is one of the barriers that we can erect, and we can very much prevent more than we currently do from getting in there.
Q127 Dr Lewis: Yes, but I don’t understand why you are resisting my question, which I think is self-evidently true; I want to come on to what the companies could and should do and how we ought to try to make them do it. When you say that you can contain it, what you mean is that you can keep it up there for as short a time as possible, I suppose, instead of it remaining there indefinitely, but the reality is that at any point in time, because it is so much easier to upload this material than it is for an outside body to remove it, you are always going to be on the back foot and reactive, aren’t you?
Mr Wallace: I don’t agree with the premise of your questions, Chairman. There are different steps you can take to mitigate the impact of it. Can you 100% stop it?
Dr Lewis: No one is suggesting 100%.
Mr Wallace: No. If all the players in the chain did more, you could contain it more than it currently is contained.
Q128 Dr Lewis: All right. I am not making progress with this, so I shall move on to the second half of the question. I don’t know why you had such difficulty with that particular proposition, but what I am trying to get at is this. Isn’t the truth that the only way this stuff is going to be largely stopped is to make sure that the companies that are providing what we might loosely call the broadcasting facility construct their machinery in such a way that most of the material will not get through in the first place? And isn’t the way to deal with that to hit these companies in their pocket? Maybe you are going to tell me that that is what the new plans involve; I hope so. You can be quite sure that if these companies knew that they would pay major financial penalties in the event of their permitting violent, extremist material to be propagated on their website, they would pretty quickly develop tools to prevent that from happening. So are there any plans to hit these companies where it hurts, in their pockets, big time?
Mr Wallace: On the first part of your question, I totally agree that the real way to prevent this material from being broadcast is to get the companies preventing it from being uploaded –
Dr Lewis: In the first place?
Mr Wallace: In the first place.
Dr Lewis: Thank you.
Mr Wallace: I think 99% of the 40 million removals by the big CSPs last year were done by artificial intelligence – it was automated – rather than by people sitting in rooms. Of course, we were told a few years ago that that was not possible.
Dr Lewis: Exactly.
Mr Wallace: Now it is. However, there are technical limits because of the way the internet is constructed. Should we be dealing with a fictional CSP whose servers are based in North Korea and Cuba, for example, our ability, because of the structure of the internet, to control that – well, it is much harder. You have heard in your Committee previously about the concept of safe spaces. The safe space on the internet is just as potent and dangerous. We have to constantly work out ways that we can do it.
Q129 Dr Lewis: Most people use the tech giants, and they are accessible to us. If you then isolate from the tech giants the ones that are in hostile countries and so on, that would surely be where our cyber counter-measures could be used to attack such hostile structures, should they be beyond our reach. As a start, would you not accept that major financial sanctions would be a massive incentive? We would suddenly discover that organisations such as Facebook – surprise, surprise – were actually able to stop the vast majority of this poisonous material going up initially.
Mr Wallace: First, I agree that we are in the game of stopping the mass public being subjected to this type of material. That is why the big CSPs are key. They are also key in driving innovation about what automated systems are doing. That is why the Home Secretary has been twice to see them in the United States. I think his predecessor did, too. We set up the Global Internet Forum to get them to work on that.
I will get to the regulatory side of it. What you say is absolutely the case. We definitely believe they can do more. It is constantly my regret that it seems to be often that they talk about their policies as if there is some Government policy that they will choose when to do it and not. For example, if we compare the policies on child sexual exploitation, two things become apparent. When in law they are made to do something, they do it. The PROTECT Our Children Act 2008, which came through the US Congress, mandates that all CSPs should report child sexual exploitation images to law enforcement and to foreign law enforcement. We get 4,000 referrals a month from that route.
Funnily enough, if you ask the CSPs the question when it comes to terrorism content, and they say, “We remove 14 million”, or, “We remove 300,000”, and I ask the next question, “How many did you then report to the police?” there is usually a stony silence. In one case, one said to me, “It is not our job to report it to the police.” They do respond to regulation, and it is possible for that to have an effect.
Q130 Dr Lewis: Are we planning to apply such regulation?
Mr Wallace: Secondly, to your point about where it hurts, they absolutely do seem to respond to money. They are shareholders, after all. I am on the record, when it was not Government policy, saying that we should explore tax. If they cannot provide the reassurances we need, I need to spend more money on surveillance and police to mitigate the effect. As they sit around on their superyachts, I am sure they can help fund some of that. If you want to change behaviour, you have to look at that.
When it comes to what the Government will do, the online harms White Paper – I do not want to anticipate or undermine it – will look at a range of models, including regulation and tools within that regulation to make them do more, as well as voluntary things. I think the stick alongside the carrot will be a very important thing for them to change their behaviour.
I notice that Mark Zuckerberg commented the day before yesterday, recognising that they would like to be supported by Government in producing regulation. I think we will decide what the regulation is, rather than him, but nevertheless they realise that we are going to come at them with regulation if they do not act. We will try to do it pan-European and pan-G7, as well as domestically. The biggest challenge for us all – you alluded to potential alternatives – is that the construction of the internet is an overall unit that is hard to get to grips with. In other parts of the world, internet freedom against oppressive regimes is incredibly valuable. It is not as easy as saying, “Switch it off or we will switch you off.”
Q131 Dr Lewis: I just want to come back, and then we have to move on because of time. Let us face the fact that we are talking about vulnerable sections of the community being radicalised. If they have got to the point where they are drilling down into the deep, dark net, then they are already pretty well radicalised. Surely, what we should be concerned about is the mass of vulnerable young people in the tech era who get drawn to this because it is the mainstream online media.
My last question on that point is how much longer do we have to wait before we realise that the mainstream online media are not going to do what is necessary and they have to be faced with massive financial penalties, whereupon they will suddenly discover that they can do what is necessary to protect people from being poisoned in their own homes by this horrific material?
Mr Wallace: I would say that the penny has dropped with them, from the comments of people like Mr Zuckerberg. I think they recognise that patience on that has run out. You are right. I have three children and my concern is about some of the algorithms within their own business models. YouTube make money out of making you watch YouTube. The seductive nature of their business model is all about keeping you hooked, as opposed to responsible viewing. In that case I think there is a lot more that they need to do.
I also recognise that, for example, Brazil tried at one stage to switch off WhatsApp. That didn’t work, because the nature and technology of the internet makes it a challenge. We have to make sure that we use effective carrot and stick to get the internet companies in a place where they do much more. I do not think you will find a single parliamentarian, Mr Chairman, who does not think that internet companies can and should do more. I think more and more members of the public think that internet companies should do more.
One of our challenges is that different jurisdictions have different tolerance of hate speech, for example. The first amendment in the United States would present some difficulties with us, with neo-Nazi stuff, for example. Colleagues often ask, “Why is it still on the internet, when we’ve been trying to get it shut down elsewhere?” There are technical measures we could take and I would welcome your input to the White Paper, which is coming imminently.
Q132 Dr Lewis: Are proposals to improve children’s digital literacy through the national curriculum a way forward? Finally, I ask about human moderation of content. We are on a scale where the role of human moderation is necessarily limited, but there is also the question about the effect on the moderators of having to examine this vile material in order to protect the rest of us. What do you think about those two aspects of the problem?
Mr Wallace: On your last point about the moderators, the people I would pay tribute to are the police, the national crime agency and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command. That is the very worst part of law enforcement, in that they see all the referrals every month and they have to see the most horrendous stuff. The fact they do it for us is extraordinary. There is relief for them – and the same for moderators in the private sector – in the form of automation. Artificial intelligence can be applied to this, but the automated process is going to be the way that we are really going to make a difference. In fact, the figure is 99% to 1%. It was responsible for 14 million take-downs. I think that is the key.
I am sorry I have forgotten the first part of your question.
Q133 Dr Lewis: It was about the national curriculum and whether children should be taught internet safety.
Mr Wallace: Without being completely negative about the CSPs, they have an outreach programme. They have come to some of the schools in my constituency and they teach children at primary school internet safety. A number of schools, including the school my children are at, teach internet safety. We all, as parents and schools, need to take responsibility, but the likes of Google and Facebook, as they come here to make money, need to be even more proactive in their responsibilities for digital safety online. A number of people have been radicalised into IS and al-Qaeda, and a significant proportion of them spanned the ages of 15 to 22. It is the ages of 15 to 20 where we should really be working.
Q134 Dr Lewis: When internet companies say to children, “You should be safe and you should be aware of this”, I wonder how they deal with it when the children turn around and say to them, “If this material is so damaging, then why do you have it on your site in the first place?”?
Mr Wallace: Those are the questions that children are usually very good at asking. There is a fact – this is completely off the military thing, but ISIS deliberately go out to try and target children, both in the physical space and indeed in the online space. And we all have to take our share of that, but the credential service providers really have to step up.
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Q143 Phil Wilson: I want to ask about Daesh. Is there a possibility of it becoming the military force it once used to be? We know they are hiding weapons and money and so on, and there are still a lot of fighters in Syria. Is there a credible possibility of them becoming a military force like they were just a few years ago in Iraq and Syria?
Mark Lancaster: At the moment, we have got to a point where, territorially, they have been defeated and dispersed. As long as they are dispersed, we won’t be returning to a point where the caliphate exists over an area the size of part of Western Europe. That is a very positive message there that we are all keen to make sure we do not give them that opportunity.
Mr Wallace: Not at the moment. If the ingredients that allowed it to happen – the failed state, the internet, easy, open travel across the world, and in Syria, certainly, access to oil and oil money – are elsewhere and we certainly see them looking, then there is a potential these things could come back. We saw in the Philippines and the insurgency in the southern Philippines, for three months ISIS held a town. The casualties inflicted on the Philippine Army were significant and they held out for a long period of time. That flared up mainly fuelled by hostage-for-ransom payments, but if the ingredients are there, it is possible.
I would say this, but I slightly blame the difference between this century and last century, the internet, in that it gives them the ability to spread the propaganda, the glories of the new homeland or whatever they try and con people with. That is why the work we all do to make sure states are resilient and do not become failed is one of the best ways to see it off. They are looking and they will continue to fantasise about another caliphate. It is part of their fate, or whatever they call it, to have another caliphate. There are a number of them before they reach the ultimate Armageddon, so they will look.
Mark Lancaster: It goes all the way back to my earlier comments about why I believe that the building stability overseas strategy is so important. With that upstream intervention, we can prevent the sorts of scenarios or the coming together of the various factors that Ben just described as being a reality. That would be an opportunity that we must ensure does not happen.
Mr Wallace: The lesson to learn is that we spot these ingredients converging. The lesson from the early 2000s was that, as these start to converge, the allies or the west were not prepared for what it turned out to be. Ultimately, what the militaries have learned on the ground and what they have seen, and what we have learned in the intelligence picture, is the key. We now know what to look for, and it is why both our JICTU and our overseas capacity building through CSSF is aimed at stopping the next one.
Chris Felton: One of the things we have talked about here is Daesh in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the globe, but one of the things we have not forgotten about is the enduring threat from al-Qaeda as well. While there is an enduring threat from Daesh, whether as an insurgency or reoccurring elsewhere in the globe, we do not want to lose our focus on al-Qaeda as an organisation that has endured and has had some presence in that particular area and other parts of the globe. Whether it is the resurgence of al-Qaeda or a new phenomenon that grows out separate from either of those, we want to ensure we are looking at the threat broadly, rather than necessarily focusing on Daesh as an individual organisation.
Q144 Phil Wilson: So the threat could grow elsewhere, but you do not see the threat reoccurring in the way it did before in Syria and Iraq?
Mr Wallace: Not at the moment. In the judgment of the Syrian regime and the SDF, they are all consolidating. Others will say how the Iraqi forces are progressing in Iraq, but the conditions do not look as they did in the early 2000s, which allowed them to grow. They have not gone away, and as you rightly pointed out there are thousands out there. Some have gone home, some have not, some are dead and the race is on to see what we are going to do about them.
Q145 Dr Lewis: May I interject at this point? The business of seizing and holding territory that ISIL/Daesh engaged in was very much an aberration from the normal terrorist model, wasn’t it? I think it is true to say that al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri, their theoretician and leader, were opposed to adopting that model. Do you think that the fact that they did declare a caliphate and were physically in charge made them vulnerable to conventional military counteraction in a way that terrorist groups are not normally? Do you think that added especially to the inspiration of people worldwide to become radicalised? Do you think we need to remind ourselves that, before that aberration occurred, we were worried about al-Qaeda, which did everything it could to remain invisible, according to the traditional terrorist method? That is presumably what we must expect from ISIL/Daesh in the future.
Mr Wallace: First of all, we should never forget that al-Qaeda are absolutely as potent – they are out there, organising and reorganising, refocusing and biding their time. They have not gone away. Prophecy, dreams and ideology drive both al-Qaeda and ISIS much more than most other terrorist groups. The prophecies that ISIS are wedded to are about caliphates until you eventually get to Armageddon.
The fundamental ideological difference between it and AQ at the time is that AQ do not quite believe in that step-by-step caliphate until the end of days in the same way that ISIS do. ISIS were trying to fulfil their own prophecies that they believed in, to the extent that they predicted this end of the caliphate, because you cannot have a new one until this one ends. They slightly missed their goal – I think there was a certain town in Iraq where they had to be and it all had to end there, so they slightly got that one wrong. But that will still drive them.
In other countries, we see a difference; where tribe meets ideology they are not so attached. On a Monday they wear the al-Qaeda T-shirt and, depending on the power and who has the upper hand on a Tuesday, they may align themselves with ISIS or something else on a Wednesday. Certainly, the Syria caliphate that we saw created was empowered by the sense of people wanting to belong, which is something that we have to deal with at home and across Europe. There are a lot of young people attracted to belonging to something, and that was definitely used to groom people to go and throw their lives away, as we have seen.
Q146 Dr Lewis: So hopefully, even though the threat has not gone away and has reverted to the more traditional international terrorist model, it will be less inspirational for young people now that it no longer has a physical reality in territorial terms. Is that what you are saying?
Mr Wallace: For now. If I look at the statistics for this year compared with last year, aspirant travellers – people wanting to travel – have massively declined from Europe into Syria. We have not seen it immediately pick up and people say, “Oh well, I’m not going to Syria now; I’m off to Africa,” or other parts of the world.
Q147 Dr Lewis: Or, “I am going to blow myself up at home.”
Mr Wallace: That is what we have seen a shift in: we have seen a significant switch from what we would call directed and enabled attacks in Syria to inspired attacks at home and across Europe.
Q148 Dr Lewis: Which is what we had before ISIS with al-Qaeda.
Mr Wallace: Although we had inspired attacks with al-Qaeda, they required top-down permission. It was literally a man in a cave who went down to deliver the messaging, all the way from the FATA to back here, to give permission to do it. There was a much more solid command-and-control structure in al-Qaeda than there was in ISIL, but ISIL will sometimes now lay claim to almost anything. You can inspire yourself in your bedroom, which is good enough for them.
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Q164 Phil Wilson: The US has criticised the UK’s unwillingness to repatriate and to try UK foreign fighters. Has this had an impact on our relationships with local partners? Are you looking at working to update the law of treason, to make it easier for the UK to try UK citizens who have gone over to Iraq and Syria?
Mr Wallace: I saw the reports about the US criticism, but I never saw the reports about the two US citizens who were not allowed back into the United States. The foreign fighter phenomenon is a real challenge to all of us. I attended the G7 in Toronto last year where one of the main topics, among all the different countries there, was how to deal with foreign fighters who have based themselves in a failed state – a non-state – and how international law plays in that space. What about the interaction with non-state actors? The SDF is a non-state actor. That makes how we deal with these people a big legal challenge.
First, the thing that is often not talked about is that if we were to go into these failed states and take people against their will – even if it was to try them for justice – that would be called unlawful rendition. That would undermine any prosecution we had. We cannot just fly in, pick them all up and bring them back. That is a big challenge, never mind the risk of actually going there as a member of the British state.
Then it comes to the challenge of, “What we are going to do about it, and is treason one of the options?” First, in the new counter-terrorism Bill that we took through with cross-party support, we put in a new offence with a designated area, which will very much help us deal with foreign fighters in future.
We will designate areas and they are reviewed every three years. If you go there without a reasonable excuse, such as being a member of the armed forces sent on our behalf or being a member of the UN under UN-sanctioned aid, you can face up to 10 years in jail just for being there. The French have an offence that is easier to deal with around that; the Danish have that and so do the Australians. We have put that to try to fix the problem going forward.
The challenge is also about the current people who say they want to come back but pose a real risk, and how we are going to deal with them in future. That is where it has not come a
cross recently in the media that deprivation is one of the tools that we use. We use a range of tools. We prosecute them when they come back if we have the evidence that we can use in court. We will prosecute them, but, of course, we don’t use intercept evidence and we have to be careful with other countries’ intelligence, so it is not as straightforward as, “We’ll just bring them back and lock them all up.”
Q165 Dr Lewis: On that point, of the number who went to support ISIL/Daesh, for what proportion has it proven possible to gather enough evidence of what they actually did there, other than support a declared enemy organisation of this country? Of those who went, what proportion realistically were we able to prosecute on specific offences?
Mr Wallace: Of the approximately 400 who have come back, about 40.
Q166 Dr Lewis: One in 10?
Mr Wallace: I am honest about this: it is a challenge. They have been in a failed state. We may have lots of intelligence about people, or we could use some evidence but it would expose intelligence capabilities that we shouldn’t, so it is very difficult. There is also recognition that 20% have been killed, have not come back at all. They faced the ultimate penalty for what they did and they died on the battlefield.
Some have come back. It is important in the current discourse, with a lot of them giving interviews at the moment, to know that the foreign fighters you are seeing on your screens are the hard core. The ones who are disillusioned and disaffected and were a bit part in the process came back long ago. You are not seeing some of these people on telly because they just decided to break out and tell everyone how awful it was. It is because they were captured in the redoubt of ISIL’s collapse. These are the real deal that you are seeing and we shouldn’t make a difference between men and women on that. They are the hardest core.
When deprivation appears – deprivation has been around for 150 years; it is not a new thing – the Government looks at a range of tools it can use. Its first preference is to bring people here, put them in jail – on trial – so that justice is seen to be done and they are put in prison. That is what we knew worked in Northern Ireland. That’s how you say to communities, “This is how we deal with our own. That’s the way we do it.”
If there is an excessive threat or a dangerous area and different barriers are in the way, one of the tools is deprivation. Other tools are stopping people going in the first place. We take away their passports; we have TPIMs where we try to control people when they get here. Or we work with our allies to see if there is a prosecution more appropriate elsewhere in theatre.
It is one of the tools, but it is definitely a problem and we are going to have to work out how we are going to deal with it, within our international law obligations. Unlawful rendition, for example, we have just – . Imagine if we put people at risk, brought back here some of the most dangerous people against their will and the case was thrown out.
Dr Lewis: I do not think anyone is suggesting that we should bring back dangerous people against their will. The question is what we do with dangerous people who want to come back and who, if they were allowed to come back, couldn’t be prosecuted, for lack of admissible evidence, and couldn’t be trailed 24/7 without expanding the number of watchers in the security services to East German/Stasi proportions. That didn’t end too well either.
If people want to come back, but we can’t specifically prosecute them for individual acts while they were abroad, presumably we need to have a means to prosecute for the very fact of having sworn allegiance to an organisation that had effectively declared war on our own society. That surely requires a change in the law.
Mr Wallace: Who knows what is going to happen on a day-to-day basis at the moment, but the potential of a reform of the Official Secrets Act and the Espionage Act and a whole area that has been viewed as out of date has been sort of trailed. The Treason Act is ancient, as is the Official Secrets Act.
Q167 Dr Lewis: Forgive me: it is recognised that the Treason Act is very old, but it is still there because the concept is fundamentally sound. In the Second World War they adapted it and I believe they brought in something called the Treachery Act.
Mr Wallace: Which was then repealed.
Q168 Dr Lewis: Which was then repealed at the end of the conflict. Precisely. Therefore, surely while this conflict is going on and while there is a very real danger of human time-bombs – literally in some cases – coming back, having failed over there to do their worst over here, there is something to be said for having an Act of Parliament that would mean they were not able to carry that out.
Mr Wallace: I am not opposed to the principle of it. I think when you drill down and ask whether there are other offences that, if you had the same type of evidence, you could prosecute – yes there are.
Q169 Dr Lewis: The only evidence we have in the cases I am positing – which are 90% of the people who come back, or the 90% that you haven't been able to prosecute – is that they swore allegiance to this organisation and/or went there to fight for it.
Mr Wallace: Well, you might not even have that. Sometimes terrorist groups are not – The IRA used to have a whole green book process and, at one stage, you almost got a membership card. If you look at how ISIL claims its membership, it often claims on actions or behaviour, rather than a swearing in.
Q170 Dr Lewis: That is all the more of an argument for something that has to be necessarily wide-ranging.
Mr Wallace: The Government doesn’t rule it out. The Government does know that there are a range of offences currently that, if we had the evidence to trip into treason, we would also have the evidence to trip into some of those other prosecutions.
The other thing to reflect on is the effect of treason on some of these people. Do they want to be known as a traitorous martyr? Do they want that narrative to play? What we know from the Second World War prosecutions is that a large proportion of them weren’t hanged. Some got very short sentences, but it was the stigma attached. If it is about stigma, that is certainly a powerful message for the state to send out, as long as the person who is receiving the stigma doesn’t use it for their own glorification.
It is certainly the case that the statute is old – 13-something.
Mark Lancaster: Is it 1351?
Mr Wallace: It is 1351 or 1350. I remember that one of my ancestors, William Wallace, slightly scuppered the prosecution by saying, “How can I be tried for treason in a foreign land? I don’t actually live here.” I think there is definitely merit in updating a number of the statutes. The Official Secrets Act refers to an enemy of the Crown or the state, and you have to prove that you are working on behalf of a foreign state as opposed to a foreign terrorist entity. We are looking at all that. The Law Commission is due to publish a report on it – certainly on hostile espionage – and I think we will be open to it, as we deal with it at the moment.
In the meantime, the designated areas offence is an offence that we hope will bring some prosecutions to bear on some of these individuals. We are all going to have to think about how we are going to deal with foreign fighters. I think this is going to be the concept of the 21st century.
We have seen people trying to recruit people to come and fight, in the Philippines and parts of Africa and so on. Many of those have travelled and have been involved in a number of issues. The first time we really saw it was in Bosnia, probably, with the mujaheddin brigades. We have to think about how we are going to deal with it, but it is often hemmed in with international law, and that is a challenge.
Q171 Phil Wilson: Has it caused any difficulties with local partners in those countries?
Mr Wallace: We work very closely with local partners to let them know, where it is appropriate, and to talk to them. We are not the only country to use deprivation. Some of those countries themselves do. Whatever we do when it comes to deprivation, it is done within international law. We do not make people stateless. There are some allegations that we did – we will not. When the deprivations come before me and then the Home Secretary, it is based on a national security case – it is not picked out of thin air. At the same time, it is based on a legal case, making sure that we don’t make someone stateless.