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Foreign Secretary downplays threat: Iraq, ISIS and the UK

If you are looking for expert comment on terrorism, Iraq, Syria and related matters Dr Osman Hassan is an Assistant Professor in the University of Warwick's Department of Politics and International Studies

For more information or to speak with Dr Hassan please email Tom Frew;

Dr Hassan' commment:


When the Foreign Secretary spoke in the House of Commons about events in Iraq he restated the UK government’s estimate that 400 British citizens have been active in the war in Syria, and therefore the assumption is that some of these individuals will be fighting with ISIS in Iraq. Whilst this figure may be surprising to many, it actually downplays the nature and scale of the threat faced by the UK and the challenges it poses to the UK’s security services.

It is currently estimated that nearly 20% of foreign fighters in the Syria come Western Europe; predominantly France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. As such, it is not just the UK’s 400 citizens that will need to be closely monitored, but rather an additional 1600 European citizens that have the ability to cross the UK’s borders. This added complexity not only requires closer counter-terrorism cooperation with other European security services, but adds to the complexity of preventing a proportion of the 2000 foreign trained jihadis committing terrorists acts across the EU. The nightmare scenario for the UK, however, is that the planning and preparation for an attack on UK soil is conducted abroad and missed by foreign security services. This is not unprecedented; for example members of the Hamburg Cell in Germany later went on to plan the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C.

The conundrum that Westminster now faces is that there is a serious and growing terrorist threat emerging from Syria and Iraq that challenge the UK’s national interests. However, there is now a consensus that 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, defence budgets are being cutback, the UK’s military are fatigued, there is no public will or stomach for more foreign adventures in the Middle East, and a foreign conflict could derail the governments economic narrative less than a year away from the May 2015 election. As such, whilst the speed in which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have captured many towns and cities across Iraq has taken many politicians and policy-experts by surprise, the UK will not commit itself to any foreign intervention.

What was resounding in the Foreign Secretary’s address to parliament, however, was that the government understands the causes of the conflict in a very limited way. It is the case that leaving a security vacuum in Iraq following the UK and US withdrawal has provided ISIS with space for the occupation of towns and cities. It is also the case that the Iraqi government has helped stoke sectarian tensions between the Sunni and Shia populations, which is equally spilling over the border from Syria. However, Secretary Hague failed to mention how wealthy individuals from ally states in the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait have helped fund extremist organisations in Syria such as ISIS. He also failed to mention the growth of satellite TV stations broadcasting from across the region, but also from the UK having taken advantage of free speech legislation, are contributing to a growing sectarian conflict. The wider regional context needs to be understood if the threat is to be reduced and allies need to be called to task for their part in spreading sectarian conflict and extremism. For example, stoking sectarianism across the region has been a fundamental part of the Saudi Royal families survival strategy following the uprisings it faced in its own Eastern Province and in Bahrain in 2011. The success of ISIS is a result of the Arab Spring giving way to larger sectarian divides and a regional cold war taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iraq is just another battlefield in this regional cold war. As the conflict spreads across the region from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, the opportunities for fighters from Western Europe to gain expertise and training is growing. In this context, the UK government’s willingness to neglect the nature and scale of the threat, and instead rely on domestic security services in the future, is deeply short sighted.