The new terrorism watchdog is a man on a mission — and judging by his recent comments, it’s one the Government may not be too happy about. In a speech last night, Max Hill QC warned against imposing restrictions on extremist preachers and urged ministers to engage with groups previously shunned for extremist concerns.
But is there really a “dividing line” between extremism and terrorism? Since March, four jihadist attacks have claimed multiple lives and a resurgent far-Right has inspired attacks on Muslims. These dreadful events do not happen in a vacuum. Those who seek to attack us have first been immersed in the Islamist or far Right ideas that can inspire violence.
Likewise, is it as simple — as Hill suggested last week — to say that fighters returning from Syria should be reintegrated rather than prosecuted if they travelled out of a “sense of naivety”?
People who travelled at the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 may have had humanitarian motives, but those who left after Islamic State (IS) announced its caliphate in 2014 and started decapitating Western journalists could have no doubt what they were joining. Are they really “disillusioned” — or, as the caliphate crumbles, are they merely running out of options?
Hill has optimistically said we have the legal armoury we need to deal with IS returners. Perhaps we do, but we need to use it more effectively. Returning fighters need to be appropriately risk-assessed and prosecuted where possible.
There is also the danger that returners will glorify jihad and inspire others. Given the unprecedented level of current threats, the Government is right to emphasise long-term counter-extremism work that tackles the radicalising impact of supremacist ideologies.
Hill has been questioned before. Last month, security officials accused Hill of being “naive” for contacting the Islamist group CAGE — despite it describing IS executioner “Jihadi John” as a “beautiful young man”. CAGE has a long history of promoting jihadist clerics, such as al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki, and the Government (rightly) does not engage with them.
Hill said he contacted CAGE because they issued “a misleading press release” about him, which made it “all the more important that I hear their views”.
But CAGE do not hide their views — there is nothing Hill can gain from a meeting that he cannot read on their extensive website.
Instead, Hill should ask why CAGE want a meeting so much that they would bait him into responding.
For CAGE, the central issue is engagement and legitimacy — something, perhaps naively, the new watchdog seems all too willing to give away.
This article first appeared in the Evening Standard.