Case No. 1
Two British men – James Hughes and Jamie Read – were recruited by an American to go to Syria to help the Kurds fight the brutal ISIS (which the British Government condemns). The two prefer to call themselves freedom fighters and not mercenaries as they are not doing this for money. The tabloid newspapers have hailed the pair as heroes. The pair are still believed to be in Syria fighting ISIS.
Case No. 2
Two British men – Mohammed Nahin Ahmed and Yusuf Zubair Sarwar, both age 22 – were recruited by a Dane to go to Syria to fight with the Free Syrian Army against the brutal Assad regime (which the British Government condemns). The two prefer to call themselves freedom fighters and not mercenaries as they did not do what they did for money. The tabloid newspapers described them as terrorists. The pair returned to Britain, where they were arrested and charged with offences under the Terrorism Act. They both pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 13 years gaol.
Okay, the above is a very simplistic description, but – hopefully – makes the point about perceptions, partiality and – more importantly – the way law is applied or otherwise and – just as importantly – inconsistencies in the law. Putting aside whether one agrees or disagrees with the actions of one or both pairs of men, the underlying problem in the current context is the way that Britain – as well as many other countries in the West – uses (e.g. manipulates) the law to fit in with political requirements.
There is also a wider issue – namely, at what point conflict is deemed war, as opposed to paramilitary activity. These days war is a statist concept that usually requires international approval via the UN. Where approval is not granted, however, any conflict, no matter how widespread, is normally regarded as criminal. With regard to the current conflict in Syria and Iraq, no Western country has actually declared war on the forces there as those forces are not recognised as being representative of a nation-state, though parliaments and their equivalent have approved military activity of one kind or another (e.g. US air strikes against ISIS). Technically, it can be argued, a state of war does not exist in this part of the Middle East and so all combatants in this conflict could be regarded as criminal, though in practice this applies only to combatants who are not part of any state-organised military or who are selectively defined as illegitimate (i.e. terrorist).
The blanket label ‘terrorist’ if applied to all Muslims who go to the conflict area is not particularly helpful in that while some may go there to join or support militias or ISIS, others may go to provide humanitarian aid. There are further complications in that within the conflict area numerous forces are at play, resulting in some military and paramilitary groups swapping sides as the dynamics change week by week.
Also, there is a very fine line between youthful heroics and youthful naivety, which is easily crossed particularly when unlike conventional warfare (e.g. Brits against ‘Argies’) allegiances prove unstable.
Meanwhile, the huge difference between how one pair of alleged freedom fighters are dealt with compared to another pair must at least raise questions about the consistency in which law is applied, if not the integrity of that law. Ethically, any person who seeks to take the life of another is to be condemned. Legally, however, that appears more a matter of politics.