At just 19 years old, Shamima Begum is at the centre of a vitriolic debate that has gripped the UK. When she was 15, Begum boarded a plane from the UK with the intention of joining the proscribed terrorist group ISIL. She was among three girls from Bethnal Green Academy who also took the journey in 2015.
In recent days Begum, now 19, was discovered to be living in a refugee camp in Syria. With her newborn son in arms, she says she wishes to return to the UK. This has sparked uproar in Britain as many are not willing to allow her reentry.
Those opposed to her reentry say that her apparent lack of remorse and ‘emotionless’ face during interviews with journalists is evidence that she is unrepentant and a danger to society. Some national newspapers go as far as saying that, as long as Begum fails to apologize for the actions of ISIL, she may as well be condoning them and should not be allowed back to the UK.
Headlines such as “ISIS bride Shamima Begum still SUPPORTS rape and murder of Yazidi sex slaves” and “ISIS bride Shamima Begum might NEVER be de-radicalized…” have been rife in the past week.
Ms. Begum herself has said there’s no evidence of her having physically harmed anyone and that she spent her time in Syria as a housewife. However, under UK terror legislation, she could be convicted for simply being affiliated with the group.
This is symptomatic of the UK’s flawed terrorism prevention policies including PREVENT and CONTEST. It is very telling that Begum willingly traveled to Syria, rather than staying in the UK. This is a sticking point for those arguing she should be refused entry to the UK, but who are ignorant of her upbringing.
At the time, Begum was only a teenager and was essentially groomed by ISIL. Those arguing against her return point out that she was old enough to know better, but like many teenagers Begum was easily led by what she viewed as an ideal way of living.
Now she has used her agency to say she wishes to return to the UK and this alone suggests she cares more for her son’s well-being, and her own, than for any religious or other commitment for ISIL.
Some say she is running away because it got difficult; ISIL’s territory is declining. By refusing to admit Begum, we may be sentencing her to death. ISIL may seek her out for abandoning them or Begum, and her newborn son, could remain trapped in a war zone.
While Begum has been unapologetic, the trauma and desensitization she has faced may be the cause. Radicalized when young, her conceptions of right and wrong align with that of ISIL and she is in need of help and rehabilitation, not yet more marginalization. This sets a dangerous precedent.
In particular, Begum was criticized for seemingly justifying the Manchester Arena bombing, which killed 22 people. But Begum is far removed from the unspeakable violence that occurred on that night as are the British public from violence around the world, some of it enacted by UK and US troops.
Security minister, Ben Wallace, refuted suggestions that British lives should be put at risk to seek out nationals guilty of terror offences abroad. However, as long as these terrorists are ignored, they may not face justice and can not be easily monitored by the UK.
The UK government has argued that Shamima Begum has Bangladeshi citizenship meaning they have no obligation to admit her reentry, Bangladesh has since denied this. The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, revoked her British citizenship last week, diminishing her chances of return and rendering her stateless under international law. This was justified by the fact that, until she turns 21, Begum can apply for Bangladeshi citizenship which, according to The Home Office, does not make her stateless.
Javid had also said that 600-year-old treason laws should be rewritten to allow for easier prosecution of returning fighters. Despite the fact that Begum was radicalized in the UK, and failed by UK anti-terror efforts, the UK government has washed its hands of her, denying any responsibility.
On a normal basis, criminals would be expatriated to their country of origin to face justice. The debate surrounding Shamima Begum has shown the lack of preparedness by the UK and other European nations for addressing returning nationals who have fought for or joined terrorist groups.
All this in a context where Trump is demanding that Europe take back their foreign fighters and ISIL territory continues to decline. Battles for the last enclaves are ongoing. Surely, it is preferable and right to ensure foreign fighters face justice rather than having their citizenship revoked and being allowed to continue as radicals like Shamima Begum?