26 February 2021

Denying Shamima Begum’s return is a victory for national security

By Matt Dryden

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court to prevent Shamima Begum’s return to the UK to challenge the removal of her citizenship is a reprieve for British national security. 

It marks the end of a protracted legal dispute that has been going on since Begum was located in a Syrian refugee camp in February 2019, more than three years after she left East London at the age of 15 to join the so-called Islamic state (Isis) in Syria. This began when then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid sought a deprivation of citizenship order under the 1981 British Nationality Act, to prevent Begum returning to the UK because of national security concerns.

Opposition to Begum’s return has largely focused on two key and interconnected issues: the unquantifiable threat her return may pose to national security; and fears that the evidential challenges of investigating crimes committed in Syria could prevent any meaningful prosecution.

The Home Office argued that Begum’s return would create “significant national security risks”, and expose the British public to an “increased risk of terrorism”. Begum’s role in the so-called Islamic State remains unclear, with her claims of domestic servitude being contradicted by witness accounts that she actually served in the Hisbah – an armed all-female enforcer group tasked with meting out violent punishments to women for alleged social transgressions.

Nor has Begum done much to dispel the idea that she was a committed jihadist. In an interview with The Times in February 2019, Begum stated: “I am not the same silly little girl who left Bethnal Green four years ago. And I do not regret coming here”. She went further to say that she witnessed a “beheaded head” in a bin on the street in Raqqa, and when asked how that made her feel replied “It didn’t faze me at all”. In another interview with the BBC, also in February 2019, Begum “continued to espouse Islamic State philosophy”, likening the Manchester Arena attack in 2017 to military assaults in Syria. She also appeared to defend the enslavement, rape and murder of Yazidi women and children.

Not only are her past statements unlikely to endear her to the British public, but they suggest significant ideological commitment and a clear acclimatisation to extreme violence both of which heighten fears over her motives for returning and the threat she may pose. It’s not just about a direct threat though: there are understandable fears that Begum’s return will be seen as totemic, emboldening the global jihadist cause, encouraging terrorist recruitment and even Islamist-inspired attacks in the UK.

Head of Counter-Terrorism Policing Neil Basu recently said that Begum was “the big exemplar of the problem we have of the assessment of threat and risk”, and that should she return, is “someone who would expect to be arrested and investigated for her activity”. However, government statistics reveal that just one in ten Isis returnees have faced prosecution. That shows just how hard it is to investigate offences committed in overseas conflict zones such as Syria, and casts further doubt over any realistic prospect that Begum would ever face justice.

The case of 26-year-old Tareena Shakil, from Birmingham, who left the UK to join ISIS in Syria in 2014, may be instructive in considering any charges Begum may have faced upon return. Shakil received a six-year prison sentence for a combination of encouraging terrorism and being a member of a proscribed organisation. She was released in 2019 after serving just half of her sentence. On that basis, should Begum have been successfully prosecuted for membership of a proscribed organisation (which was far from a foregone conclusion), she would have been likely to serve a maximum of two years in prison, which seems highly inadequate: both from punitive and rehabilitative perspectives. 

Attempts to prioritise the British public’s safety should not be misinterpreted as spiteful disregard for Begum’s welfare. That some may worry about the fate of a woman radicalised at the age of just 15 and encouraged to leave her home for Syria is understandable. There is also a reasonable argument that leaving Begum in a Syrian camp indefinitely is not just morally unconscionable, but may present its own security risks, particularly if there is another Isis resurgence.

Some credible voices have argued that Begum should have been returned to the UK to face justice – but therein lies the problem. A dearth of evidence of her activities in Syria would not only have rendered any realistic prospect of meaningful prosecution unlikely, but would also present the UK with an unquantifiable national security threat.

Begum’s physical return in order to mount a “fair and effective” challenge to the removal of her citizenship has been deemed unnecessary, and has been prevented. In so doing, the court has further ruled that Begum cannot further contest the removal of her citizenship at this time. It appears that warnings from the security services those tasked with keeping us safe have this time been heeded.

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Matt Dryden is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.