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The question of how to deal with returning terrorist fighters has been pertinent since ISIS declared the creation of a so-called Caliphate in Syria in 2014 and encouraged supporters to travel to the region. It relates not only to those involved in active combat, but also to non-combatants who may have provided other forms of support or assistance to proscribed organisations.

In February 2015 three schoolgirls from East London were reported to have run away from home to join so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. They included 15-year-old Shamima Begum, who was interviewed by the Times in a refugee camp in Syria in February 2019. In the interview she revealed she was nine months pregnant and expressed a wish to return to the UK, despite apparently having no initial regrets about travelling to Syria. She has since given birth and is thought to be living in the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria. In early March it was reported that her baby had died.

The Government estimates that approximately 900 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups, of which approximately 40% have returned.

The territory controlled by ISIS in Syria and Iraq has shrunk since 2014 as a result of military efforts by an international coalition of forces. The territory, once roughly the size of the UK, but is now almost eliminated. As a result, it has been suggested that more people may now seek to return.

Alex Younger, Chief of MI6, recently expressed concern about the threat to public safety posed by such individuals. He reportedly said British nationals had a right to return, but that ensuring they do not pose a threat to the public would require a significant level of resource.

Under the British Nationality Act 1981 the Home Secretary can deprive a person of their British citizenship if they are convinced that it is “conducive to the public good” provided that they would not be made stateless. The Home Secretary can also deprive a person of their citizenship obtained through naturalisation, if they have conducted themselves, “in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the [UK]”, and there are reasonable grounds to believe they could become a national of another country.

It has been reported that the Home Office believes that Ms Begum is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship as a result of her heritage.

The Home Secretary has declined to comment on the case specifically, but her family have now released correspondence from the Home Office indicating that the Home Secretary has made a decision to remove her citizenship. The letter states that she has the right to appeal against this decision to the Special Immigration Appeal Commission.

An alternative option would be to issue a temporary exclusion order (TEO). TEOs were introduced by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and enable the Home Secretary to prevent a person who is suspected of having been involved in terrorism-related activity outside the UK from returning to the UK, unless they accept certain specified conditions.

In addition to using TEOs, the Government has said repeatedly that it would seek to prosecute anyone who has travelled abroad to engage in terrorism related activity. There are a number of terrorist offences that might be relevant, including belonging to a proscribed organisation, or attendance at a place used for terrorism training. However, there may be difficulties in obtaining evidence of conduct that has taken place abroad, in territory without a functioning criminal justice system that UK authorities could cooperate with.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 introduced a new offence of “entering or remaining in a designated area” aimed at addressing this difficulty. The new offence would apply to those simply travelling to certain designated parts of the world, without the need to provide evidence of terrorism-related activity whilst there.

Where there is insufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, another option would be to use ’terrorism prevention and investigation measures’ (TPIMs). TPIMs are measures imposed on individuals by the Home Secretary which aim to disrupt suspected terrorist activity and to facilitate investigations. They can include overnight residence requirements, electronic tagging, and restrictions on communication and association.

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