To Counter ISIS the UK must Help Regional Partners to Create a New, Legitimate Order

ISIS threatens long-term disorder across the Middle East. The UK does not need draconian legislation at home, but strong diplomacy and co-operation with its partners in the region to help them achieve long-term stability.

Within the space of a week in August, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May commented on the threat posed to British national security by the self-styled Islamic State, and in particular by its British members. The home secretary estimated the number of British citizens who had travelled to join ISIS or other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria as ‘at least 500’.

The recent beheading of US journalist Jim Foley, apparently by a British male, and the comments of former ISIS hostages that they were guarded by three violent British members of the group, certainly suggest that more should be done to prevent extremist radicalisation in Britain and its possible consequences both here or overseas. But as Raffaello Pantucci pointed out here on 21 August, the direct threat from ISIS to the United Kingdom is currently more assumed than proven.

The prime minister described ISIS as ‘an exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement’ that would ‘target us on the streets of Britain’ as soon as it was strong enough to do so. In similar vein, the home secretary wrote of the ‘very deadly threat we face from terrorism at home and abroad’, and their headline policy prescriptions largely reflected the premise that if ISIS had yet to attack us, it was only a matter of time before it did.

Beneath the flurry of interrupted holidays and calls for immediate action, amplified subsequently by London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal to upend the presumption of innocence in legal proceedings against anyone travelling to Syria, both the prime minister and the home secretary show a more measured approach than their dramatic language might suggest. David Cameron rightly points out that in order to deal with ISIS, one needs to understand the true nature of the threat it poses. This is a threat not to the United Kingdom, but rather to the established order – or disorder – in the Middle East.

ISIS is an insurgent group that uses terrorist tactics to soften up its targets and intimidate its opponents prior to mounting a more conventional armed assault. Its car bombs and suicide bombers are more effective and easier to aim than long-range artillery fire. These tactics not only spread fear but also suggest that ISIS has secretly penetrated deep into local society. Assassinations achieve the same effect, as well as removing key opposition figures. These terrorist tactics are of course exportable, but for now, ISIS deploys them to conquer territory, not to avenge or stimulate attacks from outside. Its objectives are local and the ‘poisonous ideology’ that worries the prime minister merely cloaks a desire for power.

As the Prime Minister points out, the new Iraqi government will therefore be the most critical element in the effort to defeat ISIS, and apart from encouraging it to take action that reduces crucial Sunni tribal support for ISIS, the UK must help persuade other countries in the region, which he lists as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey and ‘perhaps’ Iran to take action as well. I would strongly urge him to remove the ‘perhaps’ before Iran, because it is only this group of countries as a whole that can plot a path for the future of the Middle East.

ISIS feeds off the growing sectarianism in the region; the widespread mismanagement of government; the lack of governance; the education systems that do nothing to foster tolerance or even a reasoned approach to learning; the primitive understanding of the value and role of women in society; the crimping of freedoms of expression and assembly, and the widespread failure to encourage political debate. It is a region in need of serious change, and if change only comes on the back of the horrors perpetrated by ISIS, at least its actions will have led to something more than mere death and destruction.

The UK may now be a middling power, but it still has some influence in the Middle East. The Prime Minister writes of the tools at his disposal as ‘aid, diplomacy, [and] our military prowess’, and while he might like to tone down the emphasis on military means, which have produced rather mixed results, aid in the form of capacity building and diplomacy are both sorely needed, especially the latter. But one of the reasons that the UK still has influence is the perception that it operates according to a sensible mix of pragmatism and idealism. Its system of government, imperfect as it is in so many ways, takes as given many of the attributes that seem so unattainable for all but the ruling cliques of Middle Eastern states.

This is why we will do ourselves no favours, either at home or abroad, if we allow the graphic image of ‘a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean’, to use the prime minister’s words, to take us still further down the road towards harsh and unnecessary legislation aimed at an as yet ill-defined threat. Confiscating passports and stripping people of their citizenship may be necessary in some cases, as may arresting returnees from Iraq and Syria, but these measures are not going to stop people going or wanting to go. 

In her article, the Home Secretary makes a robust appeal for ‘the legal powers we need to prevail’ against terrorism, but she also emphasises the effort her department is making to understand and address the reasons why people raised in Britain should want to join groups in Syria and Iraq that make no secret of their brutality and intolerance. This is where the real work lies, and just by making a genuine effort in this direction, the government will do more to counter the appeal of ISIS than any amount of arrests and exclusions. It will also increase the UK’s ability and legitimacy to make suggestions to its overseas partners in the Middle East as to how they might promote longer-term stability in their troubled region.


Richard Barrett CMG OBE

Associate Fellow, Counter-Terrorism

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