In 2015, during the week-long mid-term break from school, three teenagers from London’s East End told their parents that they were going out for the day. Instead, they packed their bags and travelled together to Turkey, before heading on to ISIS-controlled Syria. Kadiza Sultana was sixteen-years-old, while Shamima Begum and Amira Abase were only fifteen at the time. They were by no means the first young people from around Europe and the West to make the dangerous journey, but the CCTV footage of the three girls going through airport security caused widespread shock.
There were, of course, questions asked about what on earth had possessed three intelligent, high-achieving London teenagers to turn their backs on their homes and families to head for the brutality of a terrorist caliphate. Had no one picked up the warning signs? How had three unaccompanied girls, two of them minors, succeeded in walking onto a plane out of Britain without anyone questioning or stopping them?
That was four years ago, almost to the day. In the intervening years, a regretful and frightened Kadiza Sultana has reportedly been killed in an airstrike, the fate of Amira Abase is unconfirmed but it is believed that she may still be alive, and Shamima Begum has appeared in a Syrian refugee camp, having fled the crumbling Caliphate whilst heavily pregnant. In an interview with a journalist from The Times of London, Begum spoke of her desire to return to Britain.
My impression is that the majority of Brits hoped that if any of those ‘Bethnal Green girls’ emerged alive from the ordeal, they would be overcome with remorse and guilt, tearfully acknowledging the terrible mistakes they had made and begging to be given a second chance. How else ought a young woman to behave who broke her parents’ hearts, allowed herself to come under the influence of violent extremists, and abandoned her country to aid and abet a brutal regime known for slaughtering minority groups and beheading dissidents?
Unfortunately, Begum has shown no such remorse – no remorse at all, in fact – and the cold manner of her interview with a British journalist was enough to send shivers down the spines of anyone listening. She claims to have no regrets about going to join ISIS, she criticizes the Caliphate because it is corrupt and oppressive — not because it was a violent and dangerous terrorist entity whose ‘warriors’ have cut throats, beheaded, burned or thrown innocent people off the top of buildings. Begum’s claim to have been ‘unfazed’ at the sight of a severed head in a bin has caused particular disgust. The dead man was an enemy of Islam after all. Begum has made it quite clear that her only reason for wanting to return to Britain is to protect her unborn child, whom she fears may meet the same fate as her two other children, both of whom died of malnutrition and lack of basic medical care.
To say that there is little sympathy in Britain for an unrepentant jihadi bride would be the understatement of the decade. The general feeling seems to be that Begum can burn in hell, rot in a refugee camp, anything other than return to Britain. The difficulty is that, legally, the Home Office may not be able to prevent her return or strip her of her citizenship if she is not deemed to be a citizen of another country. It is not permissible under international law to render a person stateless, nor would it be morally acceptable to demand that another country deal with Begum.
The issue that is causing the most soul-searching in Britain is that Begum was a minor when she left Britain for Syria, she was below the age of consent and there are powerful voices – including those of her own family – pleading for mercy on her behalf because she got herself into this situation when she was only a child. With Britain still reeling from the Rotherham scandals, there is the troubling sense that Begum was a victim of online grooming, targeted and brainwashed precisely because she was – in her own words – “a silly girl”, and that she should not be held accountable for her actions even though she is now legally a 19-year-old adult.
The difficulty with this argument is twofold. Firstly, while she was a minor when she made the decision to ally herself with a dangerous terrorist organization, at fifteen Begum was well over the age of criminal responsibility. Children younger than her have been successfully prosecuted in juvenile courts for breaking the law and have faced incarceration in institutions for young offenders. Being below the age of consent does not mean that a young person cannot be considered capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong and cannot be held accountable for breaking the law.
Secondly, while brainwashing is a reality, the young woman coldly claiming to be unfazed by the bodily remains of a barbaric extra-judicial execution, is an adult who has had four years living in the harsh reality of ISIS-controlled Syria to reconsider her position. There are reportedly dozens of young women like Begum, desperate to return to their homes in the West but as one observer noted who has interviewed these women in refugee camps, they have reacted very differently to Begum. For the most part, they are desperate, aware of the terrible mistakes they have made or at least aware that they were deceived. Begum, on the other hand, feels guilt only for not being strong enough to remain in that ISIS hellhole, for breaking faith in some way by fleeing to safety for the sake of her unborn child.
A young person may be brainwashed into making a terrible decision. However, the visceral horror of finding oneself in the midst of a violently oppressive system in which men are butchered and dumped unceremoniously in bins, should serve as a wakeup call. The woman Begum has become does not just come across as an unrepentant extremist, she appears to lack the most basic vestiges of common humanity.
I do not see how there is any case for risking lives or wasting thousands of pounds trying to rescue Begum from her refugee camp when there are young British nationals stranded in dangerous situations who are expected to pay for their own rescue and repatriation by a parsimonious Foreign Office. These are young women who, through no fault of their own, are taken out of the country – sometimes believing that they are going on a family holiday – only to discover on arrival that a marriage has been arranged for them and that they cannot return to Britain.
According to the Guardian newspaper, 82 victims of forced marriage arrived home to a massive bill and the confiscation of their passports until they found the money, an injustice that should put Begum’s plight into some kind of perspective. UK charities report that they are receiving calls from girls as young as thirteen who fear forced marriage; these are young people – sometimes younger than Begum was when she voluntarily left Britain – who are entirely innocent of any blame for their predicament and are not receiving the help to which they are entitled. As a point of justice, these young girls surely have a greater right to assistance to return to a country they never asked to leave and to rebuild their lives.
It should be considered, in the midst of all the online rage against Begum, that she comes across as so chillingly heartless because she is in shock or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a possibility that cannot be taken lightly. At the age of nineteen, she has lived for four years in a war zone, watched helplessly as her two little children died, learnt of the death of her schoolfriend and fled pregnant to an overcrowded refugee camp. She is also carrying a child who has the right to life regardless of how – and by whom – she was conceived.
If Begum eventually makes it back to Britain with her child (and it is unlikely that she can be stopped), she should be made aware that she is subject to British law and that will mean submitting to a lengthy investigation, prosecution, and quite probably a lengthy prison sentence. It may also involve the permanent removal of her baby by authorities who regard it as against the child’s best interests to be raised by a mother who thinks it acceptable to kill non-Muslims. Like many, I have little faith in de-radicalisation programmes. Any attempt by the state to interfere with an individual’s thoughts are fraught with difficulty, especially when the individual concerned is resistant to those interventions.
On compassionate grounds, Begum and her child (who will also be British) should be given the medical care, psychiatric assessment and assistance they need if they return to English soil. In the name of justice, however, a woman who may well still pose a security risk, should accept the consequences of her actions like an adult.
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