Forty people have been arrested since the start of the year on suspicion of involvement in militant activity in Syria, the Metropolitan Police announced this week.
The figure, which shows a sharp increase in the number of Syria-related arrests, up from 25 throughout last year, comes a week after the Home Office refused to answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the Bureau for the same information. The Home Office suggested that giving us the information would jeopardise national security.
‘We are increasingly concerned about the numbers of young people who have or are intending to travel to Syria to join the conflict,’ said the Met’s national security coordinator, Helen Ball. ‘This is not about criminalising people, it is about preventing tragedies.’
The Met’s numbers represent one strand of wide-ranging counterterrorism efforts aiming to tackle increasing concerns over Britons fighting in Syria. This is believed to include citizenship stripping, alongside the confiscation of passports and an initiative announced today inviting concerned mothers to contact the police if they fear their children are planning to travel to Syria.
The Home Office has yet to release the number of British nationals who have had their passports confiscated in relation to Syria, but immigration minister James Brokenshire told Parliament that the powers, introduced by Royal Prerogative, have been used 14 times since April 2013. A Metropolitan Police spokeswoman declined to say whether the 40 Syria-related arrests included those who had had their passports confiscated.
Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, told the Bureau that between 400 and 500 Britons had travelled to fight in Syria, with ‘250-0dd’ having returned.
The Bureau reported last year on a rise in the number of orders issued by the Home Secretary removing the British citizenship of dual nationals, with 20 cases in 2013 alone, as the government attempted to prevent British fighters returning from Syria. It later emerged that eight of these were on national security grounds, the others were cases were the government believes citizenship had been gained fraudulently.
– Shiraz Maher, senior fellow International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation
In January, David Cameron explicitly linked citizenship-stripping powers to British fighters in Syria, telling the National Security Council: ‘In every discussion that we have had about Syria, we have also discussed the dangers of British people travelling to Syria, the dangers of extremism and the dangers of terrorists returning home. Not unrelated to that is why, downstairs in the House of Commons, we are debating how we should be able to take away people’s citizenship.’
Brokenshire indicated in February that deprivation of citizenship orders and passport stripping were both being used in relation to Syria.
‘There is a range of measures available to the police and the security services through [Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures], through royal prerogative powers to remove passports, indeed, to deny citizenship in certain circumstances where it is proportionate to do so,’ Brokenshire told BBC Radio 4.
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Maher questioned the government’s approach to the potential security threat those returning from Syria pose to Britain and said Home Office measures risked alienating people it should instead seek to engage.
‘Theresa May has to know she has been sending out totally the wrong message with [measures] such as deprivation of citizenship, confiscation of passports and talk of whole life terms for people having gone to Syria,’ he said. ‘[The Home Office] is going to have to realise that not everyone who goes to Syria is a national security threat.’