Shamima Begum case exemplifies ISIS returnees’ conundrum

UK Security Minister Ben Wallace insisted he would not risk officials’ safety to rescue British citizens who joined ISIS and who are trapped in Syria.
Friday 15/02/2019
Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (AFP)
Renu, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London, on February 22, 2015. (AFP)

LONDON - A London schoolgirl who left the United Kingdom in 2015 to join the Islamic State (ISIS) has asked to return home, saying, however, that she did not regret joining the terrorist group.

The case of Shamima Begum, who is being held in northern Syria, exemplifies the difficult position many European countries find themselves in with regards to potential ISIS returnees. Begum is 19 and believed nearly full-term pregnant.

“I was weak,” she told the Times newspaper in an interview at al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria. “I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved but I was also frightened that the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on. So I fled the caliphate. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”

The question of whether Begum should be allowed to return -- and what criminal charges, if any, she should face -- is the subject of strong debate.

UK Security Minister Ben Wallace insisted he would not risk officials’ safety to rescue British citizens who joined ISIS and who are trapped in Syria.

“I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go looking for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme. “Actions have consequences.”

Wallace acknowledged that, as a British citizen, Begum has the right to return but must contact a British embassy or consulate in the region. He added that nobody should be surprised if she was subject to investigation and law enforcement should she return.

Begum’s family insisted she should be viewed as a victim who was radicalised online. She was 15 when she ran away to join ISIS, along with two other schoolgirls – Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase -- whose fates are unknown.

“I am really grateful she is alive,” the Begums’ lawyer Tasnime Akunjee said in a statement. “Bernard Hogan-Howe, when he was Metropolitan Police commissioner, said the girls should be treated as victims as long as no evidence emerge that they committed offences. I would hope this is honoured.”

Comments by Wallace indicated that the view in the British government might have hardened towards ISIS returnees since then.

“People know what they’re getting into,” Wallace said. “This is a terrorist group, one of the worst ever in the world, that butchers people and has been responsible for the death of dozens of British citizens.”

It is unclear whether Begum took up arms to fight for ISIS or provided material support to the group but many say she could represent a national security threat via her mere presence as a former ISIS citizen who has not explicitly rejected those views.

“The biggest challenge if she did come back will be how the police will keep her safe and how she wouldn’t be some sort of lightning rod for both Islamic and far-right extremists,” warned Sir Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police.

“If she still holds those views, that’s clearly going to be an enormous challenge and you can understand why the government is not particularly interested in facilitating her return,” he told “Today.”

Many cited Begum’s comments in the Times as lacking any repudiation of ISIS’s views and demonstrating little repentance for her time with the group.

“Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, every now and then bombing and stuff... but when I saw my first severed head in a bin, it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she said.