23 February 2023

Shamima Begum is a problem made in Britain – one we should deal with ourselves


Shamima Begum, the British-born teenager who threw her lot in with Islamic State terrorists, will remain stateless and incarcerated in a Kurdish-run detention camp in north-east Syria. For now at least. 

Yesterday, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, a UK court that deals with nationality issues related to national security, upheld a decision by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid to revoke Begum’s British nationality. That decision followed her discovery in a refugee camp in February 2019, where she had ended up after the diehard IS fighters to whom she had pledged allegiance ended up surrounded and bombarded.

In the intervening years much has been made of the transformation of Begum from a niqab-clad apologist for some of the most barbaric crimes in post-war history, to a sleek, modern and apparently remorseful young women who graces the front pages of magazines and appears on well-received podcasts. Gone, apparently, is the depraved indifference to the grotesque suffering she supported. Cynics suggest that this metamorphosis was more to do with her appeal to regain her citizenship than genuine repentance. In any event, it didn’t work. That’s a shame, not because Begum deserves a shred of sympathy, but in the interests of a coherent national security policy.

The appeal decision by the tribunal that examined the case runs to 76 pages. It is a telling example of the difference between our values and those of the theocratic fascists that Ms Begum identified with – the rule of law versus the pitiless executioner’s sword. In essence, the appeal concluded that no evidence presented by her legal team invalidated the Secretary of State’s decision to deprive her of citizenship. The judgment suggested, however, that there must be ‘credible suspicion’ that Begum received ‘encouragement’ by people to leave the United Kingdom. This reflects one of the main arguments by her lawyers that she was trafficked and exploited by adult extremists and that insufficient attention was paid to this when she was stripped of her British citizenship. They argued that the process was polluted by the media storm and popular outrage over her discovery, and by her first interview with The Times’ Anthony Lloyd when she professed no regret for affiliating to Isis and displayed a chilling insouciance about the barbarity they inflicted.

While upholding her banishment, the judgment also referred to ‘arguable’ state failures by the police, school and local authority, in their duty to take reasonable preventative measures to stop Begum from travelling to Syria. None of these agencies have been formally investigated since Begum and her two friends – both assumed now to be dead – escaped to the Caliphate. Begum was never referred to our national counter-terrorism ‘Prevent’ strategy despite evidence available to authorities. Even if she had been it is far from clear if that process, mired in triviality, would have spotted and dealt with her radicalisation risk.

‘Prevent’ was itself strongly criticised in the recently published Government review by William Shawcross. It’s particularly remarkable that in December 2014 – barely two months before Begum fled the UK – her school, the Bethnal Green Academy, explicitly warned that she was ‘at risk of radicalisation’ and that she ‘may go to Syria’. The only follow-up to this assessment was a visit to the school by police officers, who handed Begum and her accomplices a letter for their parents. This is precisely the sort of confused and inept communication of risk that Shawcross draws attention to in his report. One advantage to having her repatriated is that it would spark a thorough and probably extremely uncomfortable analysis of how she and her school chums fell through the net from high-achieving London teenagers to indoctrinated IS brides. 

So why do I believe that upholding the judgment to strip Begum of her citizenship was wrong?

After all, here is a bright young woman who carefully planned her journey to a war zone to marry a jihadist, and then remained in moral support of violent extremists for years, bearing three children (all now dead). Indeed, the judgment underlines the point that she had agency – a point often missed by those who argue that she is a victim first and foremost. But the fact remains, our national security is better served by her repatriation to this country, to be charged and tried by her peers. Two supporting principles transcend the behaviour of a selfish and callous young woman:

Firstly, Begum is held in a teeming, insecure detention centre in a part of north-east Syria controlled by Kurdish separatists. We have outsourced responsibility for her, along with potentially hundreds of other European fighters, to a people (brave as they are) without a state. The US State Department and the UN have both described these camps as incubators for radicalisation. If further proof were needed, a recent mass escape from a nearby prison attacked by Isis was contained only after US intervention and the loss of dozens of lives. It is highly likely that there will be a mass exodus of hundreds of combat ready and vengeful detainees from these camps.

Worldwide, from Mauritania to Pakistan, ungoverned spaces and failing states are being filled by resurgent Islamist affiliates looking for new bases to continue their jihad from. There will be plenty of space for Isis combatants and their dependents to regroup unless the international community takes over responsibility for the repatriation of foreign nationals held in north-east Syria. Shamima Begum is our problem, made in Britain. We should not shirk this obligation.

Secondly, returning her to this country to face investigation and justice is not a sign of weakness. It is a restatement of the superiority of our values and our commitment to principles that distinguish us from the medieval barbarians Begum was attracted to. This point is relentlessly undermined by populist opinion in the UK that assumes her civil death through banishment is the muscular response she deserves. It isn’t. Terrorists hate normality. They detest institutions such as the rule of law and due process that underline their moral vacuity. The goal of revolutionary Islamism is a global caliphate that subsumes the Enlightenment. The day before her judgement was delivered, the UK Head of Counter-terrorism, Matt Jukes, warned that growing numbers of British extremists are being drawn back to Syria to join jihadist groups. When we react punitively to someone who cannot possibly have the means to do further harm, we do their dirty work for them. She should be a ghost here, not a martyr there.

Finally on the issue of harm, we have a multiplicity of criminal laws and civil terrorism control measures that could apply to her on return to this country to sanction her, or at least safely manage any risk she would present. That the state agencies responsible for this task have been so heavily criticised in recent years should not be a reason to stop her defending herself in open court and, moreover, taking the punishment for her abhorrent behaviour. That is how civilised countries behave and ultimately why the decision to strip her nationality is wrong. Not for her sake, for ours.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

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