Tuesday 15 October 2019


The long and winding road

British reluctance to accept responsibility for returning jihadists has caused a rift with American allies

By Robert Verkaik

The four British jihadists known as ‘The Beatles’ were the most feared of all the Islamic State torturers. This was partly because of the pleasure they took in carrying out their grisly duties against Western prisoners.

Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed Jihadi John, may have grabbed the headlines for the video beheadings he took part in, but it was another Londoner, El Shafee Elsheikh, who took to the daily tortures with the greatest gusto and zeal. The prisoners nicknamed him ‘Jihadi George’ and they dreaded every minute he spent with them in their cells. His excessive brutality even came to the attention of the Islamic State emirs who intervened and temporarily relieved the Beatles of their guarding duties.

Mohammed Emwazi died in a drone strike in 2015 in Raqqa. A second member, Aine Davies, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey.

But El Shafee Elsheikh and the fourth member of the cell, Alexander Kotey, survived.

Mohammed Emwazi, who became known as Jihadi John, seen in an Islamic State execution video

Their whereabouts were unknown until they suddenly appeared last year on our TV screens paraded in interviews with the Western media by their Kurdish captors. Their glowering and surly expressions were potent testimony to the threat they still posed to the West. Britain’s response has been to strip them of their citizenship, leaving the Kurdish forces little option but to agree to Pentagon requests to let the Americans prosecute them in a US court where they face the death penalty. Just days before Turkey’s onslaught against the Kurdish-held areas of north east Syria American forces took custody of the two British terrorists.

The UK government’s policy of abandoning all British citizens caught up in terrorism abroad has become a source of tension between Britain and its allies in the so-called war against terrorism.

Given the British decision that Kotey and Elsheikh should not be brought to justice in the UK, the US authorities now feel they have to take responsibility as the men are accused of the beheading and torture of American nationals.

However, the Americans have repeatedly said they would prefer Britain to own up to its responsibilities and try them in a British court. Last month Donald Trump repeated his call for European countries to take back their terrorists.

It is a view shared by the family of El Shafee Elsheikh. His mother has brought court proceedings to stop Elsheikh from being sent to the US, where he faces the death penalty, and force the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to charge him under UK terrorism laws.

The case is a running sore between the two allies and has shone an uncomfortable light on UK policy.

During one of the hearings in the case, which is still before the Supreme Court and whose judgement is expected soon, it emerged that since 2016 the CPS held ‘very substantial evidence’ to charge Kotey with five murders and eight counts of hostage-taking.

The Director of Public Prosecutions had also acknowledged there may be sufficient evidence to charge Elsheikh with membership of a banned terrorist organisation, a deeply embarrassing revelation for the UK Government.

Alexanda Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh, among four British jihadis dubbed The Beatles

Last year, Ben Wallace, who was then the UK’s security minister, categorically stated that the CPS and police did not have evidence to try either of the men in the UK.

The court papers disclosed in the case also provide evidence of the erratic movement of the UK government’s moral compass. Sajid Javid was home secretary at the time and Boris Johnson was foreign secretary. Motivated by expediency, both sought to overturn Britain’s long-standing policy of absolute opposition to the death penalty.

In 2016 when the Americans had first asked for evidence to build a criminal case against both men, Amber Rudd demanded assurances that they would not face the death penalty.

But court documents show that Johnson and Javid hatched a plan to withdraw this request.

Javid had briefed Johnson that the Americans would be ‘outraged’ by such a demand, which could lead to the men being sent to Guantanamo Bay, out of the reach of international justice.

So in June 2018, Johnson wrote to Javid, authorising him to inform the Americans that the UK would be happy drop the request for death penalty assurances.

It was a remarkable departure from Britain’s longstanding objection to the death penalty.

Setting out his position, Johnson said in his letter to Javid in June 2018: “I am a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty and the UK’s role in pursuing this globally. However, as with so much in relation to the fight against Daesh, we find ourselves in an unprecedented and unique position. For the reasons I set out below, I am content you can take a decision to provide assistance in this case for a federal prosecution in the United States without seeking assurances…The UK has an international obligation to assist in bringing foreign terrorist fighters to justice…Given the nature and seriousness of the possible offences the fact that some of their alleged victims were British citizens, a successful prosecution and commensurate sentences is particularly desirable in order to provide a strong deterrent signal to others and ensure justice for victims’ families.”

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledges applause from members of his cabinet, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid

Yet the court documents also show that Johnson was warned by advisers at the Foreign Office that not seeking death penalty assurances “presents a risk of damaging our ability to secure adequate assurances from the US and other countries in future”. He was also warned of a “wider reputational and political risk that would arise from executions in these cases following UK assistance”.

And even Johnson himself noted: “There is also a national security risk whereby there may be reprisals by extremists against British citizens at home and abroad, should the men be executed.”

That detail, first reported in January this year by the Daily Telegraph, showed he was familiar with the idea that such an approach put British people at greater risk.

In recent days, Johnson now Prime Minister, has shown a continued willingness to suspend the rule of law in pursuit of his own political agenda.

This Government’s hard-ball attitude is filtering through to domestic counter-terrorism policy. There are also a growing number of cases of non-combatant British aid workers in Syria who have gone to the Middle East to help but found themselves stripped of their British nationality.

These policies are changing the way some British Muslims regard the UK. Immigration lawyers are reporting an upsurge in inquiries from law-abiding Muslim families who before going on holiday want to know whether they are at risk of being stripped of their British citizenship while they are abroad. Fuelling this fear among Muslim communities is a lack of information about the new counter-terrorism policies which lawyers believe are arbitary. The number of deprivation orders hit a peak in 2017 but despite repeated calls for an update on this trend the government has failed to disclose to Parliament figures from the last two years. They are more than six months late.

Security minister Brandon Lewis told me in an email: ‘In exceptional circumstances, the Home Secretary has the power to deprive an individual of their citizenship, where it would not render them stateless. The government, police, security and intelligence agencies and local authorities have a range of tools to reduce the threat we face from terrorism. From arrests and prosecutions, to safeguarding and early intervention through our Prevent programme, they work tirelessly to keep us safe.’

The number 30 double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, central London

After the 2005 terror attacks on London, Tony Blair announced that the ‘rules of the game have changed’.

Boris Johnson’s derogation from the UK’s long standing objection to the death penalty, an unprecedented upsurge in deprivation of citizenship orders and the use of the family courts to prosecute parents, have shown how far the ‘game’ and the rules have changed.

For many British Muslims this has fuelled fears that they are subject to a different kind of justice.

Photographs Hussein Malla/AP/Shutterstock, Getty Images


Further reading

This analysis by Will Todman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC neatly sums up the implication of Trump’s decision to vacate northern Syria. Russia and Syria benefit and the greatest concern is a resurgence of Islamic State.

Robert Verkaik’s book Jihadi John: The making of a terrorist illuminates the story of Mohammed Emwazi’s recruitment to Islamic State – when Emwazi was identified, the author realised he had interviewed the former IT student years earlier.