Though our country remains hugely divided by political opinion, one new topic has become so hotly contested that conversations around Brexit have taken a backseat. Shamima Begum, 19, wants to return to the UK after leaving four years ago to become an IS (Islamic State) Bride, but her plea has been denied today, following many controversial discussions.
Shamima was just 15 when she voluntarily moved to Syria with two other females, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. The trio attended the Bethnal Green Academy in East London, but left everything behind for a new start in Syria, to live under IS law. Though they departed together, Kadiza is believed to have been killed during a Russian airstrike and Shamima doesn’t know whether Amira is still alive. Having been attracted to the lifestyle advertised in propaganda videos circulated by the militant group, Shamima became radicalised; she applied to be an IS bride and fled the UK following the promise of marriage and the possibility of building a family.
Shortly after arriving in Raqqa, northern Syria, Shamima married a 27-year old Dutch man who had converted to Islam to join IS. Throughout the 4 years spent living within the IS stronghold, she was a housewife and had two children, both of whom have now died due to lack of medical care. Pregnant with their third child, she and her husband recently fled Baghuz, Islamic State’s final remaining territory in eastern Syria, due to conflict between IS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since 2017, SDF have been fighting to relinquish territories from the control of IS, and Baghuz represented the final phase of this campaign. Shamima’s husband reportedly surrendered to Syrian fighters, leaving a heavily pregnant Shamima alone within a Syrian refugee camp. Now, having given birth to a healthy baby boy last weekend, many interviews have taken place in which she has stated her wish to return to the UK; this led to countless discussions regarding whether or not this should be allowed.
Although widely labelled as a “terrorist group”, known for beheadings and other executions of soldiers, journalists and aid workers, this did not deter the young woman from IS lifestyle. In a recent interview she says she believed that “Islamically, that is allowed, so I was okay with it”, though respected imam Ajmal Masroor has since strongly disputed this. Purportedly, Shamima doesn’t agree with everything IS have done and does support some "British values"; however, she does not regret her decision to live under Islamic State as she enjoyed her time there and states it made her stronger as a person. If the situation had been more stable under Islamic State, there is a question as to whether Shamima would have chosen to try to return to the UK, as she admits to only having second-thoughts about her life towards the end. She chose to leave primarily for her children, as after losing Raqqa, life under IS became strained and more oppressive. Though life in the refugee camp is an improvement to what Shamima experienced toward the end of her time in Baghuz, she wishes to return to the UK and put the past 4 years behind her in spite of her controversial involvement with IS.
Islamic State have been formally recognised as a proscribed organisation within The Terrorism Act (2000), since 2014. Whilst membership of the group is an offence under the same Act, a defence remains if the person charged proves that they have not personally taken part in the activities of the organisation. During the years spent under IS rule, Shamima describes herself as having been “just a housewife” who “never did anything dangerous”. As such, there have been appeals for the UK government to allow Shamima to return home with her newborn child. Many believe that she has every right to return as she is a UK citizen. Arguments in defence of Shamima include that she was still legally a child when she fled to Syria and cannot be held accountable for her decisions, as she had been indoctrinated into the IS mentality via propaganda. Nonetheless, the head of MI6, Alex Younger, has previously suggested that returnees pose security risks to the country: many feel that those who make the decision to join IS should lose the opportunity to live in the UK as they have supported an organisation which shows such blatant hatred toward this country’s way of life. Given the high-profile nature of this case, surely consideration must have given to the fact that she might no longer be safe in the UK, as much of the population condemns her actions and do not wish her to return.
If Ms Begum were still under 18, the government would have had a responsibility to take the best interests of her and her child into account; however, at the age of 19, return was less likely as she does not appear truly repentant. She wishes to return to care for her child, knowing that living conditions will be improved in the UK, not because she has begun to disagree with the IS lifestyle.
There is no denying that the birth of her son added urgency to the situation. Regardless of one’s opinion on the mother’s actions, the child remains innocent: a victim of circumstance. The baby is a British citizen “by descent” and thus has the right to live in the UK, even if the government chose to refuse re-entry to Shamima. The removal of a child from its parent is not a decision to take lightly. Shamima wishes to keep him with her, especially having lost two of her children already, but at the very least would want him to be placed in her family’s care. Meanwhile, her family have continued to campaign for their return, having previously believed they would never see her again. If Shamima were able to make her own way to an airport, the UK could temporarily ban her from returning pending investigation. If allowed to return, she would be monitored and possibly have to go through deradicalisation, if it were to be decided that a threat was posed by her still having some IS ideologies. And given her current situation, she is unlikely to be able to travel without external aid, as she has no money and remains alone.
Not only have the general population been divided on the best course of action, professionals such as Home Secretary Sajid Javed and Justice Secretary David Gauke also found themselves at odds. Those in authority were left considering security threats and precedents that might be set by aiding her return, whilst remaining mindful of both the legal and moral arguments for and against the country’s involvement in Shamima’s case. A huge concern appears to be the lack of remorse shown by the young woman – though she has apologised for leaving her family in such a way, interviews have revealed that she doesn’t regret leaving to join IS. As she is a mother, it might be unreasonable to suggest she should regret a decision she made that resulted in a marriage and three children whom she loves; however, concerns regarding her nonchalant views on a group known for committing atrocities against human-rights remain prominent.
Shamima’s circumstance does not exist in isolation; though this particular story currently dominates. There are many other UK-citizens-turned-IS-members who wish to return. This has been a complicated situation without a simple answer and many factors have been considered: is it reasonable to expect the country to finance her return? Would the lives of her and her family be at risk in the UK following her actions? Should we allocate resources necessary to quantify the risk she could pose? Can we allow a UK citizen to return stateless if they have not committed a crime in the eyes of the law? Trying to form conclusions from interviews carried out in a Syrian refugee camp were deficient, as we are likely missing a myriad of important details. Aside from the questions only revealing some of the story, there is no guarantee that her answers have not been influenced by being unsure about whether she is surrounded by those for or against IS within the camp.
Shamima’s future was out of her control as her fate was discussed in a cost-vs-benefit manner over mahogany desks within the most important offices of the country. However, it has now been decided that her citizenship as a UK national shall be revoked, as evidenced by a letter sent from the Home Office to her family this evening.