Until 2014, Jack Letts had a normal life. He grew up in a middle-class family in Oxford, attended a good state school and was surrounded by a close-knit group of friends. I know this first-hand, as for many years we were classmates. However, the last three years have been anything but ordinary for Jack. In 2014, having converted to Islam, he travelled to Syria. He has remained there since, along the way being dubbed Jihadi Jack by the British media, after an image surfaced of him making a hand gesture widely used by Islamic State.
In May, the 21-year-old was captured by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units after leaving territory that had been controlled by Isis. He has since been charged with being a member of Isis.
Even though Kurdish officials have made it clear that they are willing to hand over prisoners to their countries of origin, they say the Foreign Office has still not requested that Jack be returned. What’s more, the Tory minister Rory Stewart recently said that the only way of dealing with most of the Britons who travel to Syria is to have them killed.
Although this view has been largely disavowed, an alarming number of people think Stewart has a point. In their eyes, those who have travelled to Syria, and have any sympathy whatsoever for Isis and its despicable ideology, have forfeited their rights, and are not worthy of our help.
This view, while understandable, is wrong. Every attempt should be made to bring individuals like Jack home to be dealt with.
While I did not know Jack particularly well, and have not had contact with him for many years, I feel compelled to speak out – not only for Jack and his parents (who have been through their own horrendous ordeal, including being charged with funding terrorism for sending money to their son), but also for British society and the values that we supposedly live by.
Despite the media frenzy, very little is actually known about Jack and what he has been doing over the past three years. I have nothing to offer by way of enlightenment. I don’t know why he went to Syria, whether he supports Isis, or whether he has committed any acts of violence in its name. I also have no idea whether he would pose a threat to our society if he returned. I don’t know whether there is any going back for him.
But here is what I do know.
I know that one thing that separates us from Isis is our unwavering belief in human rights and the rule of law. There is no tangible evidence whatsoever that Jack is a terrorist. In fact, he vehemently denies this, maintaining that he originally travelled to the Middle East on humanitarian grounds. He has clearly been radicalised, but he also insisted that he hates Isis “more than the Americans hate them”. Does Jack have a great deal of questions to answer? Yes. Should he be tried under the Terrorism Act on his return to Britain? Possibly. Should he be abandoned and left to rot in appalling conditions in Syria? No. Jack is a British citizen, and is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. To ignore his plight because he might be a terrorist threatens the very foundations upon which our society is built.
Some may equate this position with sympathy for terrorists. Yet years of tough talk have gotten us nowhere. I often think about how the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks would feel if they could see the world they have left behind. I suspect they would be delighted: they have succeeded in driving a wedge between “us’” and “them”, goading the Western public into accepting increasingly draconian measures that further isolate those vulnerable to their poisonous ideology. To have a hope of combating home-grown terrorism, we must better understand why individuals turn to this ideology, and offer a pathway to redemption where appropriate.
Obviously, terrorists must be dealt with using the full force of the law. I am not advocating going soft on terrorism; rather, I am proposing that it is time we took a grownup approach, going beyond mere sound bites that play well with a fearful public. We should start with making every effort to bring Jack home and, if necessary, bring him to justice.
The boy I knew was not evil. Nor is it clear, at this moment, that he has done anything evil. Whether anyone likes it or not – be it you, the government, or even Jack himself – he is a British citizen and should be treated as such. It may not be what is popular, but it is what is right.
• Michael Raff studied law with criminology at the University of Manchester