Why are British nationals being prosecuted for fighting against ISIS?

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You risk your life fighting terrorists, then get treated like one when you come home

Valentine’s Day this year was no easy day for James Matthews, a former British Army solider. He spent it in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, pleading not guilty to a charge under section 8 of the Terrorism Act 2006 for attendance at a place used for terrorist training. That place was a YPG camp in Syria, where he has been since 2015, fighting against ISIS.

Meanwhile in Liverpool, still on Valentine’s Day, the police were rushing to an airport to arrest another British national, one Aidan James, as he stepped off the plane. He had left the UK in August in 2017 to join the YPG in the fight against ISIS. He has now been charged with one count of preparation of terrorist acts contrary to section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006 and two counts of attendance at a place used for terrorist training under section 8. In short, both of these men face significant jail time for battling ISIS.

An Orwellian nightmare?

The legal definition of terrorism is extremely wide, and purposefully so. It is defined as: “the use or threat of action, both in and outside of the UK, designed to influence any international government organisation or to intimidate the public. It must also be for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.” Much has been written on the wide scope of counter-terrorism legislation. The prosecution of Joshua Walker for possessing a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook demonstrates just how Orwellian Britain’s counter-terrorism laws are.

The judiciary has been highly critical of counter-terror legislation, particularly because the legal definition of terrorism is “remarkably broad — absurdly so in some cases”. But the key issue for these Brits fighting ISIS is that “the legislation does not exempt nor make an exception nor create a defence for… what some would describe as terrorism in a just cause. Such a concept is foreign to the act. Terrorism is terrorism, whatever the motives of the perpetrators” (R v F, paragraph 27).

The huge scope of the legislation wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it were black and white to say whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. Remarkably for most terrorism offences, such as the section 8 offence that James and Matthews were charged with, the consent of both the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and the Attorney General are required to prosecute.

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This is striking because you could commit an offence under the act but get away with it if the DPP or Attorney General deem it acceptable. Lord Neuberger and Lord Judge were heavily critical of this in R v Gul:

“The Crown’s reliance on prosecutorial discretion is intrinsically unattractive… [and] risks undermining the rule of law. It involves parliament abdicating a significant part of its legislative function to an unelected DPP… [which] leaves citizens unclear as to whether or not their actions or projected actions are liable to be treated by the prosecution authorities as effectively innocent or criminal — in this case seriously criminal.”

Perhaps Matthews and James thought that their actions were morally justified. That said, the UK government has been very clear since 2015, issuing repeated warnings that anyone who travels to join a foreign conflict may be prosecuted as their actions could breach terrorism legislation. A Home Office spokesperson said that “anyone who does travel to these areas, for whatever reason, is putting themselves in considerable danger”.

In fact, back in 2014, Sue Hemming, a top prosecutor of the CPS, said that: “People have got views about all sorts of conflicts… our government chooses to have legislation which prevents people from joining in whichever conflict they have views about.” Hemming added that the CPS would look at the facts of each case, but warned that the law would be applied “robustly”. Well, she wasn’t kidding.

The government’s perspective

The government has several fears. Independent fighters aren’t bound by any command structure so can essentially do whatever they want in Syria, like torture ISIS terrorists. Due to the nature of the conflict, there are serious evidentiary issues with proving that conduct such as this has occurred. Then, if the fighters make it back home, the government fears that they could be vulnerable to radicalisation and pose a security risk.

Then there’s the issue about the YPG. Though the YPG is recognised as an important ally for the West, a foreign affairs think tank has said that the YPG is actually a front for the PKK group, a “violent terrorist organisation” banned by the UK and US.

The think tank said that fighters could be drawn into terror activity at home, which would be possible due to the training in firearms and explosives they received abroad. Kyle Orton, a fellow at the centre, said:

“Far from battling terrorism, they’re in effect aiding one proscribed terrorist organisation overcome another.”

This is an interesting perspective, considering that the Turkish government sees the YPG as a terrorist organisation. Because of the “myriad of fluid, disparate groups operating in Syria and Iraq” it can be difficult for the law to deal with fighter groups. In theory, today the YPG could be fighting against ISIS, tomorrow they could join it.

All in all, it’s easier for our government to just say that fighting in overseas conflicts is treated as a crime.

But that doesn’t mean it’s fair. Under the current law, if Hitler were to rise from the grave and you went and trained with Hamas, or the IRA, to fight against him, you could potentially be prosecuted under UK terrorism legislation. I understand and agree with the rationale behind the law here but can’t help but feel that it is operating unfairly on these fighters who are surely doing the world a service by risking their lives to destroy ISIS.

Fraser Collingham is a University of Nottingham law graduate and future trainee.

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This article is all over the place.


British police and prosecution are a joke, more concerned with prosecuting people for online hate speech and with prancing around in glitter and rainbow flags on the public dime than actually doing justice. Look at the record not only on this issue but also on FGM. This is what you get when you have a police service and public sector riddled with Common Purpose and other Cultural Marxists.


What British jury is going to convict someone for going to fight AGAINST ISIS?

Waste of taxpayers’ money.


Because the groups fighting against ISIS are just as violent and cold-blooded as ISIS itself.


Absolute nonsense. YPG stands for democracy, human rights and gender equality. Rojava has the most egalitarian democratic system that has ever existed in human history.


It’s easy to be equal when the necessities and comforts in life are extremely scarce.


This blind adoration of democracy at all costs is foolish.

The PPK (and by extension the YPG) are responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against civilians in Turkey.

You may harp on about the lesser of two evils, if you wish, but that isn’t the position the UK government has taken, and so the prosecutions are entirely warranted.


A really interesting and well written article. Thank you.

Not Amused

We seem to have taught our young people, and the left in general appears to have decided, that the ends justify the means.

They do not. Moreover, every time human society has run on the basis that the ends justify the means, that society has committed monstrous acts of evil.

The better aphorisms for our young, and anyone else who should know better, to focus on are ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.

Then perhaps we could live in a slightly nicer world.


It appears you know absolutely nothing about the YPG. “Two wrongs don’t make a right” ??? You appear to be equating the salafi right wing terrorists of ISIS with the most humanist freedom movement on the planet. Check your facts.

Neville Chamberlain circa 1938

I approve of this comment.


Your comment is full of contradiction. You criticise the left for teaching people that the ends justify the means and spew a load of nonsense about how the world could be a better place otherwise.

Tell me you nasty Tory voter, did the poor souls whose flesh burned while they screamed at Grenfell justify your decision to back the right? People die and people suffer round the corner from your luxury dwelling as a direct result of how you place your vote. To make it worse you attempt to poison the minds of others. You really are a special breed of c*nt.


A very, very foolish and babyish comment.

I can almost see the flecks of spittle around your mouth as you scream this nonsense. It will all stop when you get a job and take on responsibility for other people.


Elaborate. I have “dependants” both inside and outside of work


Vigilantism is never a great response and is rightly looked down upon.


Vigilantes also rarely abide by the laws of war


Same military-background c*nts who vote UKIP and have backward ways of thinking.


So they are willing to imprison people that fight AGAINST terrorism but aren’t willing to deport the masses of well-known extremists because of “human rights”? No wonder the UK is lost


It is an interesting problem. Many people celebrate those who fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War despite it being vigilantism. I wonder how history will view these men.


“Why are British nationals being prosecuted for fighting against ISIS?”

1. Because after Brexit the British government are so desperate for money that they’ve hedged their bets on arms sales to despotic islamist dictatorships – Turkey (which arms ISIS) and Saudi Arabia (which arms various other jihadi groups). As a result the UK is bent over for Turkey and doing everything it can to clamp down on British support for the Kurdish people whilst Turkey continues to genocide them.

2. Because UK policy regarding ISIS members is to quietly repatriate them to the UK with free housing, and to ignore the rise of islamism in the UK. Trained democratic freedom fighters returning from YPG speaking out against the UK’s acceptance of ISIS flies in the face of that policy and embarrasses the government.


I am not so sure islamism is ignored. If you are a key political figure in certain constituencies where mosques contain the voter vault, you have to go with the Imman. If the Imman wants the isis fighters repatriated, you lobby for that.


It’s Imam




If the governments’s position – as this writer declares – was clear in 2015, then why did it take exactly two years (in Mr Matthews’s case) from the day of arrest, for charges to be brought?

The legal position is far from clear even now, which is why this case will set such a precedent. Like the Home Secretary’s somewhat muddled argument in the commons, this article pretends to even-handedness (a problematic enough notion in itself, when dealing with ISIS and those who fight them) but is either equally muddled or deliberately skewed (or both).

The (unnamed) ‘foreign affairs think tank’ referrred to in this article is the neoconservative think-tank The Henry Jackson Society (HJS). HJS fell into disgrace last year for taking money from the Japanese Embassy to conduct a smear campaign against China. They routinely refer to the YPG as a front group for the PKK, and there has been widespread speculation as to why they take such an unsubtle and unreflecting stance.

Here are several links, including a denunciation of HJS by one of its own founders:

Kyle Orton, the researcher cited here who produced a plethora of ill-founded anti-YPG propaganda while he worked for HJS, was sacked by them in January for plagiarism.

As the link to the think tank (in theis article) actually goes not to the HJS site itself, but to a BBC article which cites them (using identical terms as the author), it’s possible that this author has looked no further (into HJS or Orton) in his googling. Perhaps the destructive nature of this piece is due to sloppiness rather than maliciousness. That would be the charitable interpretation.


YPG = PKK = suicide bombers who kill civilians indiscriminately in Turkey and who assassinate those they consider to be “traitors” (e.g. Kurds who work as civil servants in Turkey). Hence they are terrorists and fighting for them is terrorism. Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists routinely fight each other. Just because Al Qaeda fights ISIS doesn’t override its terrorist nature.


That is an interesting nugget about isis and al Qaeda fighting each other…Why is that ?

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