Boris Johnson is drawing up plans to send the SAS into Syria to bring back the British children of Islamic State fighters, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The controversial repatriation scheme has sparked a major Cabinet rift inside the Government’s top secret National Security Council (NSC), where there is currently deadlock on the issue.
It is understood that there are about 30 minors with claims to UK citizenship in camps in northern Syria. They were born to British parents who joined ISIS.
Following tense talks at two meetings of the NSC in recent weeks, a final decision on whether to deploy British troops and officials to repatriate the children back is expected early next month.
Even if given the green light, only those aged 16 and under would be extracted, but the Prime Minister is facing fierce pressure to abandon the plan over safety and legal concerns.
One Government figure claimed Mr Johnson was ‘wavering’ but another suggested the PM was ‘minded to’ give the go-ahead. Downing Street is likely to be furious that details of talks at the NSC, which is made up of the Cabinet’s most senior Ministers and the heads of the security services, have emerged.
Participants are bound by the strictest code of secrecy and the then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was sacked in April after being accused by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill of leaking details of a NSC meeting about the Chinese technology giant Huawei. He denied the claim.
It is understood that support for the repatriation plan is being led by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and International Development Secretary Alok Sharma.
Chancellor Sajid Javid, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are opposed, while Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and Trade Secretary Liz Truss, who also sit on the committee, are described as ‘indifferent’.
Mr Javid took a tough approach to British nationals who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS when he was Home Secretary.
When former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in March that Ministers ‘have been looking at how we can get in touch with these children, how we can find a way to get them out’, he squashed the plans due to fears that it could give ISIS fighters and their brides, such as Shamima Begum, a path back to Britain.
About 900 British citizens fled to join the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, with 400 thought to have made their own way back to the UK. Many others died, but scores have been detained in Syria by Kurdish forces and are being held in camps.
Last week Begum, who fled her home in East London, aged 15, in February 2015 and married a jihadi in Syria, issued a fresh plea to be allowed to return to the UK. The Mail on Sunday revealed in March that she had been stripped of her British citizenship after the security services found evidence that she helped ISIS fighters to prepare suicide bombs. Her baby son, Jarrah, died in a refugee camp in March.
Publicly the Government says there is no means of helping the British children in war-torn Syria because there is no UK consular access.
The repatriation talks come amid growing pressure from the American government and the Kurdish forces that run the camps for Britain to do more to help.
A Government source said: ‘The Americans are leading the charge on this, pointing out what happens when these kids grow up radicalised. It’s a major headache now but just wait until a Briton cuts the head off an American.’
Representatives from the Kurdistan government have also asked the UK to take responsibility for its citizens, but Whitehall insiders say the repatriation plan – which would see Foreign Office officials go into the camps under the protection of Special Forces troops – is impractical for logistical and legal reasons.
The Home Office has examined the idea of allowing British-based relatives of the children stranded in Syria to adopt them or for them to be taken into care, but have been warned of difficulties by officials including the legality of bringing the children back without the permission of their parents or guardians and the expense of monitoring and rehabilitating them.
Last night a Whitehall source said: ‘It’s all very well virtue signalling now about bringing them home, but some of these children are now teenagers and have spent their formative years playing with AKs [AK47 assault rifles]. It might be cheered now but when one of them blows up a shopping centre, who is going to get the blame?’