Shamima Begum, one of three London schoolgirls who ran away to join Islamic State fighters in Syria in 2015 now wants to return to Britain. Not the least of her reasons is that, having already lost two children to illness and malnutrition, she wants her third, with whom she is heavily pregnant, to be brought up in peace and safety here. But she shows no remorse for having joined the murderous and barbaric jihadists responsible for untold suffering, including the beheading of western journalists and aid workers. Sajid Javid, the British home secretary, says that he condemns anyone ‘who has travelled to be part of this brutal and barbaric group’ and that he ‘will not hesitate to prevent’ their return. So should Shamima Begum be allowed to return to Britain or not?
Shamima Begum was a fifteen-year-old pupil at Bethnal Green Academy in east London when, in February 2015, she and two friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, slipped out of Britain to Turkey and then over the border into Syria. They had been radicalised online by supporters of Islamic State (Isis), a terrorist offshoot of al-Qaeda, intent on creating a territorial caliphate in Syria, Iraq and more widely in the region where an extreme form of Islam would be imposed. Ms Begum and her friends repudiated the western values they had grown up among in Britain, and were determined to help establish the caliphate.
The three were soon married to Isis fighters, Ms Begum to Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert to Islam. Following Isis’s initial success in taking over territory in Syria, they moved to the effective capital of the caliphate, Raqqa. But this early success was gradually reversed until all that is now left of the caliphate is a tiny pocket of land in eastern Syria, due to fall this week to the western-backed Syrian Defence Force, made up largely of Kurdish troops. Many Isis fighters, including Riedijk, have surrendered to SDF commanders and their wives and children have been driven to refugee camps in the area.
It was here, earlier this week, that Anthony Loyd of the Times, discovered Shamima Begum among the throng of 39,000 refugees. She told him: ‘In the end, I just could not endure any more. I just couldn’t take it. Now all I want is to come home to Britain’. She is nine months pregnant with her third child. ‘I just want to come home to have my child,’ she told Loyd. ‘That’s all I want right now. I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’
But she gave no indication that she felt she had made a terrible mistake in going to Syria in the first place, still less any remorse for her support for Isis. Quite the contrary. She said: ‘I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old school girl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago. And I don’t regret coming here.’ And far from expressing horror at the atrocities committed by Isis, including the beheadings, she said: ‘When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam. I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance.’
Her only expressed regret was about her own weakness. She said: ‘I was weak. I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved. But I was also frightened that the child I was about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on. So I fled the caliphate.’ She did add, however: ‘The caliphate is over. There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory.’
The question now is whether she and her unborn child should be allowed back to Britain and, if she is, what should happen to her?
On Thursday the Home Secretary was unequivocal in saying he ‘would not hesitate to prevent’ those British citizens who had gone to support Isis from returning home. But that might not be as simple as it sounds. Ms Begum remains a British citizen and she cannot lawfully be deprived of her British citizenship if that would leave her stateless. Whether it would or not is unclear: her parents are from Bangladesh and by marriage she is also Dutch, so it could be deemed that she would have citizenship of either country or both if her British passport were taken from her.
But even if Britain chose not to remove her citizenship or found itself unable to do so, her return would pose many problems. In the first place, she would be regarded as a security threat, not least because of her lack of remorse, her apparent continuing support for Islamic terrorism and her seemingly abiding opposition to the western values it condemns. She might become a magnet for Islamic militants in Britain. She might also become a target for right-wing, anti-Islamic extremists.
Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Manchester and police ‘lead’ in the government’s Prevent programme to tackle incipient extremism, said: ‘Right-wing extremists would exploit the situation to target her and her family and that would be a threat to community cohesion. It would be used to whip up emotions about the Muslim community and the Islamic faith.’ He added: ‘Her idea that she can learn to live a normal life in Britain is bizarre. It displays a level of naivety when you look at what she has said. I don’t think many in the Muslim community would welcome her back – she is a symbol of a very painful time.’ Providing security for her and her family would obviously also involve considerable public expense.
If Ms Begum were to return to Britain it seems unlikely she would be able to live the ‘quiet’ life she now craves for other reasons too. For one thing she might find herself prosecuted under anti-terrorism legislation. Some would argue that since she was only fifteen when she fled to Syria she should not be prosecuted because she was then a minor, but others would argue that she persisted in supporting Isis as an adult and has therefore left herself open to prosecution. Whether a successful prosecution could be brought is another matter, since there might be a problem in assembling enough evidence against her: apart from her marrying and having children, little is known about how she spent the last four years.
To some people, however, the tough approach that seeks to prevent her return to Britain or seek to lock her up if she did return, seems wholly misguided as well as lacking in compassion. Those who take this view see her much more as a victim than a criminal. They point out that she and her friends were minors, indoctrinated by online propaganda when they were mere teenagers. It is not surprising, they add, that she continues to defend Isis as, in their view, this is a clear case of the well-known ‘Stockholm’ syndrome in which captives come to share the beliefs of their captors. What Shamima Begum needs, they argue, is not exclusion or imprisonment but nurture and rehabilitation, however difficult the latter might be.
Furthermore, they say, the issue is not simply about Shamima Begum. It’s also about her unborn child. No one could dispute that this child is innocent. But if her mother is prevented from returning to Britain, then the chances must be high that the child, born in the chaotic conditions of post-caliphate Syria, will suffer the same fate as its siblings, and die a very early death.
It is compassion for which her family is appealing. Mohammed Rahman, the brother-in-law of Ms Begum’s elder sister, Renu, said: ‘She was so young. She isn’t the only victim of online grooming. I think the hope would be that she would be allowed to return home, as long as the government is satisfied she has turned her back on their ideology. … She will obviously have to change her views. You can’t do something that is in conflict with the values of the place where you want to come home to, and not show any remorse. I think that’s a fair expectation. … I can understand why people in this country are angry and don’t want her back. What she’s done doesn’t portray Islam in a good light. But she was only 15 when she went to Syria. We are appealing for compassion and understanding on her behalf.’
So should Shamima Begum be allowed back to Britain or not? And if she is, how should she be treated?
Let us know what you think.