Aaqil Ahmed, the former head of Religion and Ethics for the BBC, is a professor of media at Bolton University and a consultant in digital media, broadcasting and leadership.

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  • What to do with ISIS returnees?

    What of the people who joined the caliphate as school children, some as fighters and some as brides. Are they tried as adults?


    2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 16



    Sally Jones, also known as the White Widow and the Punk Rock Jihadist, is said to be desperate to flee Raqqa ahead of an expected huge assault on the Islamic State-held territory. What’s stopping her? The Islamic State (ISIS), of course, and, if ac­counts are accurate, her 12-year-old son, Hamza.

    Hamza, who was known as Jo Jo before his mother took him to ISIS territory after she married fellow British fanatic Junaid Hussain, is reported to have been radicalised by ISIS and likely by his mother and stepfather before the latter was killed in a drone strike.

    A unique look into Jones’s mind­set was provided by a TV interview with another ISIS fighter’s wife, Aisha. She said Jones confessed to being desperate to return home. Apparently, she hadn’t been happy since her husband died, though it’s not known if the sight of her son al­legedly executing captured Kurdish fighters upset her, too.

    What is known is that the United Nations sanctioned Jones as an agent operating on behalf of a ter­rorist organisation, making the former musician one of the most wanted women in the world.

    Jones isn’t alone in wanting to flee the caliphate. Many European countries have this issue. As the caliphate is militarily defeated, capitals around the world will be asking what is to be done with the Sally Joneses and, of course, the Hamzas.

    Adults such as Jones decided to join the caliphate; Hamza didn’t. Then there are the others who joined as teenagers to become fight­ers and brides.

    Some express the hope that these fighters will be killed on the bat­tlefield or taken out like Hussain by drone strikes. What, though, if it doesn’t happen?

    With adults, it feels easy. Put them on trial, though even then, there is the question: What if they’re found guilty? Should they be allowed to mix with ordinary prisoners, placed in isolation or in special prisons?

    It was the course US President George W. Bush chose after al- Qaeda’s defeat in Afghanistan but it can’t work if the rule of law is discarded.

    What of the people who joined the caliphate as school children, some as fighters and some as brides. Are they tried as adults? Each case must be assessed on an individual basis and a one-size-fits-all ap­proach or dumping them en masse in a detention camp like Guantan­amo for years is not acceptable.

    What of the Hamzas of this world? They didn’t make the deci­sion to go to the Islamic State. Their parents did or they were born there.

    If Hamza were still Jo Jo, would he have committed the crimes he is alleged to be responsible for? If he has been brainwashed, then he and others need to be helped to mentally free themselves of the cult of ISIS.

    As horrible as the image is of children being involved in execut­ing people, they are still children and we must believe that they can be redeemed. If not, then what are we fighting for?

    So yes, let the crying Sally Jones come home but to a prison cell while she awaits trial. She would be tried in a country that she de­nounced but one that, along with its allies in this conflict, shouldn’t turn its back on the values that make it what it is.

    That’s the battle we will all have to deal with soon and getting it right may help in the fight to pre­vent more Barcelonas from happen­ing. Burying our heads in the sand is not an option.

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