The news in the last few days has been centered around Shamima Begum, a woman who left the UK when she was 15 with 2 other teenagers to join the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). With ISIS collapsing, Shamima Begum fled to a Syrian refugee camp after her husband, a Dutch convert to Islam surrendered to Syrian fighters. Begum revealed that she already had 2 children, both of whom died, and she asked to be brought back to the UK in order to have her baby. Since then, she has given birth. She has stated that she doesn’t regret her decision to join ISIS. In her own words, “A lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left and I was hoping that for the sake of me and my child, they could let me come back.”
Since this story has broken out, there has been a vast and furious social media backlash against her comments. Many people feel that by leaving the UK and joining ISIS, she’s committed treason against her country and that her return could be a national security issue. Although Begum was a child when she travelled to Syria, she knew what she was getting herself into. She was indoctrinated into joining a barbaric organisation which has committed horrendous atrocities across the Middle East against Yazidi’s, against Kurds, and against Muslims. In her interviews with UK journalists, although she admits that she didn’t expect the ISIS regime to be so “corrupt” and “oppressive”, she seems to show no remorse or regret in her decision to join ISIS. She even admitted to seeing the gruesome remnants of ISIS beheadings and how it ‘didn’t faze her at all’. Whilst she stated that it was ‘wrong’ that innocent people died in the Manchester attacks, she seemed to justify these attacks as “retaliation” for attacks on ISIS. Though she was just a child when she joined ISIS, as an adult she still shows no remorse for her past decisions.
The way this narrative is playing out is influenced by the fact that she was pregnant, and that her travel to Syria was so widely publicised back in 2015. As she’s a woman, words such as “grooming” and “abuse” have been used widely in the News when describing her story, with others going as far as describing her as a ‘victim’. Is Shamima Begum a victim or a culprit? The fact that she’s a woman should not take away from the fact that Begum was completely aware of what ISIS was, the atrocities it committed and the potential consequences of joining arguably the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world. Make no mistake, even though Shamima Begum claims she was “just a housewife” in Syria, she is still complicit in terrorism.
Legally, there are few things preventing Shamima Begum’s return. Over 400 radicals who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS have since returned to the UK. Provided she made it to neighbouring Turkey, she could board a flight to the UK if she has the necessary travel documentation. However, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid has stated in a strong message that “If you have supported terrorist organisations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return”. One mechanism that has been suggested to prevent her return is a ‘temporary exclusion order’. This means that she can only return if she has a ‘permit to return issued by the Secretary of State’. This protocol can be used if, amongst other conditions, the ‘Secretary of State reasonably suspects that the individual is, or has been, involved in terrorism-related activity outside the United Kingdom’. Once this protocol has been put in place, she would then be investigated, monitored, and if necessary, deradicalised. The UK could also consider stripping Begum of her UK citizenship, but that would be in violation of the UN convention on nationality and statelessness unless she could obtain citizenship of another country. After giving birth, the situation has become more complicated. Begum’s baby is entitled to British citizenship by descent and there is a debate about whether the UK has an obligation to safeguard the life of her baby. If she does manage to return to the UK, she will almost certainly be liable for criminal prosecution just like Tareena Shakil (a woman who joined ISIS with her child) who managed to return to the UK from Syria.
The case against her return:
Shamima Begum expresses no remorse for joining a terrorist organisation that has attacked this country multiple times in the last couple of years alone. She was indoctrinated by ISIS propaganda and joined ISIS being fully aware of the barbarity of the group. If she is unable to leave her refugee camp, she would have no access to a British consulate to manage her return to the UK. Should UK lives be put at risk to bring back a woman who is a known terrorist, a woman complicit in ISIS’s barbaric regime, and a woman who could threaten more UK lives at home? What the government needs to do is send a strong message to radicals that there must be consequences to joining terrorist organisations and those who have become radicalised should not feel like they have a right to return to this country of their own free will. If she is allowed to return, can her safety be guaranteed? Begum could easily be a target for far-right extremists and could also be subject to abuse for the rest of her life. Can the UK justify spending taxpayers’ money on protection for a woman who is a known terrorist?
The case for her return:
Shamima Begum was only a child when she joined ISIS; she may not have been fully aware of the consequences of her actions. Many people feel sympathy for her. After all, she’s a young woman who lost 2 children and wants to take care of her baby. It’s impossible to comprehend what her family must be feeling at the moment. The Begum family has ‘pleaded’ for her return and has suggested that they could take care of Begum’s baby whilst she undergoes criminal prosecution. If Begum is allowed to return to the UK, a prosecution against her could be a show of strength for the constructs of western democracy and the power of the UK justice system contrary to the cruel and brutal ISIS regime. It demonstrates that terrorists are liable for their actions and the full force of the British judiciary will be brought upon them to bring them to justice.
In my opinion, whilst I have sympathy for Shamima Begum’s family, I don’t believe that someone who has betrayed their country by joining a terrorist organisation should ever be welcomed back with open arms. Furthermore, my belief is that Shamima Begum shouldn’t feel like she is entitled to ever come back to the UK as a free woman. The best action to take to protect the British people would be to impose a temporary exclusion order to prevent her return. If subsequent deradicalization is successful, the government could think about extraditing Shamima Begum back to the UK for criminal prosecution so she can face justice for her actions.