The Islamic State’s pretence to nationhood was based on the holding of territory. With the battle for Mosul this week, together with the loss of the land that it controlled in Syria, that pretence is becoming harder to maintain. The area involved is now limited to a few shattered cities, and corridors between them.
The decline of this terror organisation is to be welcomed. But this is a war which can have no neat ending. If Isis were a genuine state, it would by now be forced to consider unconditional surrender. That is not going to happen. More probably it will dissolve, its leaders and lesser agents making an escape or going into hiding.
There is a danger that many Isis fighters will attempt to return to the European cities from which they came and continue an underground jihad. According to the EU security commissioner, 2,500 Europeans are in Isis-controlled territory. Some 850 UK citizens are understood to have travelled there, of whom 450 remain.
We must not be naive about the threat these people pose. While no doubt some have had a genuine change of heart and will abandon religious extremism, it is certain that others have not and will continue to plot acts of terror.
Were Isis a real state, every British citizen who travelled to fight for it would be guilty of treason. As things are, the government has struggled to decide what to do with returning jihadists. When, two years ago, the then Prime Minister David Cameron suggested removing their citizenship, the idea was immediately shot down because it would have rendered them stateless.
Instead, a weaker measure went into the Counter Terrorism Act: British citizens who join terror groups can have their passports seized and be prevented from re-entering the country for up to two years other than on terms stipulated by the Home Secretary. Yet these powers seem rarely to have been used, perhaps under threat from human rights lawyers.
The treatment of returning jihadists contrasts somewhat with action by British forces in Syria and Iraq. There, Isis operatives — British citizens among them — have been summarily killed in airstrikes whether or not they were armed and whether or not they posed an imminent threat. So there is a strange inconsistency: when confronting Isis in Syria and Iraq, we act as if at war against a foreign power; yet if an Isis fighter makes it back to Britain, we treat him as a civilian with all the rights of citizenship, including legal representation at public expense.
We have had numerous pieces of terror legislation in the past decade and a half, yet none has addressed this inconsistency. It is about time that changed.
If British citizens who have willingly travelled to join Isis cannot be tried under the law of treason, then perhaps the law should be revised. Otherwise, terrorism laws need to be extended so that travelling to ally oneself with Islamic State becomes an offence subject to a long prison sentence.
Human rights groups will no doubt squeal at these suggestions. But we have seen how Isis has operated in the territory it seized. Returning fighters present an intolerable threat to Britain, even if they claim to have recanted.
The Ukip opportunity
Since Nigel Farage’s latest resignation as Ukip leader, it has become clear that he is only the person who can hold the party together. Without him, Ukip has become a seemingly endless brawl between various hostile factions.
Still, this leaderless mess has more supporters than the Liberal Democrats. That’s because Ukip, for all its flaws, has given a voice to those ignored in an overly centrist political debate — first Eurosceptic Tories, then working-class Labour voters. With decent leadership, Ukip could still do to the Labour party in the north of England what the SNP has done to it in Scotland.
Steven Woolfe might have been able to supply that leadership, had he not been hospitalised by a fellow MEP. He has now quit, saying that Ukip is over. It’s the perfect time, then, for Theresa May’s Conservatives to make a pitch; not based on a caricature of what Londoners think Ukip voters want, but on the basic appeal of conservatism. Political opportunities don’t come much bigger.