17 July 2020

Repatriating Shamima Begum is vital for the UK’s national security


If you were so inclined, where would you plant the seeds with the best chance of growing into a post-caliphate ISIS 2.0? You would do a lot worse than start in the teeming, unstable camps in Kurdish-controlled North East Syria where, according to the latest US analysis, all the components exist to radicalise the next generation of terrorists.

Within this foetid miasma of isolation, alienation, insecurity and stateless limbo sits Shamima Begum. But not for long. Yesterday, the appeal court ruled that in absentia, she had not been afforded sufficient opportunity to defend herself against the British Government’s decision to strip her of UK citizenship. She must now return to the UK to present her case. This was an entirely predictable outcome from an ill-conceived knee-jerk decision that had too much to do with populism and far too little to do with smart national security. We should have had Begum and her associates with British citizenship back on these shores long ago.

The problem with advancing this point of view is that it is inevitably conflated with the idea that repatriation of terrorist offenders and their dependants is caving in to violent extremists – extremists who willingly went to fight for the caliphate and now want to skulk back home to the country whose values they utterly rejected. It’s a powerful argument. Shamima Begum deserves little sympathy for throwing in with a murderous theocratic death cult and exposing her children to privation and dangers that have killed three of them. She is by no normal estimation fit to be a mother. She must face justice here and answer for this and any other crimes she may have committed abroad.

Bringing Begum back home will allow us to do several important things that are central to our efforts to kill the cancer of home-grown Islamist terrorism. Firstly it serves as a demonstration that our values are superior to the brutal summary justice of Islamic State. This should not be lightly dismissed. The seductive message of Islamist extremism is built on narratives of persecution and alienation. By putting Begum through our court process we deny Islamists the oxygen of grievance that is vital for their recruitment process. A public trial exposing her squalid, amoral and tragic experience would in my opinion do more to deter future jihadi brides than any amount of security response. Begum seems to vacillate between mawkish self pity and unrepentant fealty to the Islamist cause. Again, having this played out to a domestic audience will do much to dispel any notions of prejudicial treatment in the Muslim community here. We need British Muslims, more than ever, as partners in defending national security.

Secondly, a simple point – we can’t talk to dead terrorists and their affiliates. Shamima Begum was a locally radicalised extremist and we need to understand precisely how a young girl from Bethnal Green could convert to Islamism without any of the public agencies, with their a legal duty to prevent people being drawn into terrorism, noticing or doing anything about it. I’m fairly certain that Tower Hamlets abjectly failed in their duty of care towards this teenager. But we need to understand the trajectory of her schoolgirl descent into a radicalised mindset, hiding in plain sight, in order to prevent others from following the same path and to improve our institutional response. Moreover, we have an unquantified number of other UK citizens detained with her or who she has prior knowledge of. We could learn an enormous amount from her about how IS operated and recruited when the caliphate existed. These are significant intelligence and propaganda opportunities in our battle of ideas. Indeed, her full participation in a debriefing could be a condition of her freedom, perhaps even the potential route to her disengagement.

Finally, the repatriation of our people, whether combatants, dependants or affiliates will deny IS the opportunity to mobilise elsewhere with combat experienced and ideologically hardened adherents free to attack us again. The security services are already dealing with a significant number of foreign plots that threaten the UK. It is plainly in our interests to bring the people in the camps home and prosecute them, with new retroactive laws if required. Leaving them to re-form somewhere else like North Africa or South East Asia – where there is some evidence ex-Caliphate fighters have managed to travel – is storing up potentially catastrophic trouble for the future.

We have a related moral duty to the Kurds who, without a state, menaced by Turkey and largely abandoned by the US, are barely in control of an archipelago of insecure detention centres and displaced person camps. There have already been several high profile escapes as the Kurdish guards struggle to control the perimeter, let alone exert any authority inside the walls. Unicef has estimated that there are close to 9,000 children of foreign fighters detained with their mothers in Syria and another 1,000 in Iraq in inhumane conditions. We cannot want these children with mothers like Begum to be radicalised in conditions that are likely to see them dispersed, angry and vengeful. We cannot forever evade responsibility for our people and for bringing them to justice when they return.

To be fair, across Europe as a whole, there is extreme reluctance to repatriate nationals who voluntarily went to support Islamic State and who may have participated in bestial crimes with little remaining evidence. It is ironic that the countries that have done the most to repatriate women and children from Syria have the least resources to do so. Kosovo and Macedonia, both per capita big exporters of jihadists, lead the way in terms of the number of dependants repatriated. They have established careful screening, judicial and support mechanisms to manage that risk. It ought not to be beyond our ability to do the same, perhaps in conjunction with our European partners through NATO.

Regardless of any appeal contemplated by the UK government, Shamima Begum should have her citizenship restored and join the dozens of other detained British citizens back in the UK in a dock to answer for their treasonous behaviour. It might briefly excite the tabloids but in the long-run, if we are to defeat this new generation of terrorism, we cannot outsource responsibility for our errant citizens to the Kurds. We must be bold and imaginative in how we confront terror. Mercy is a weapon.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a Senior Advisor with the Counter Extremism Project.

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