A two day court hearing is currently underway
Since the so-called “Islamic State” declared a caliphate over territory it had captured in Iraq and Syria in June 2014, citizens of recognised countries have left their homelands to join it, from those who wish to be soldiers or shariah enforcers to those who are looking for somewhere to fit in or those who are seeking some form of adventure. The number of people fleeing to join IS has dropped in recent years, as the state has lost much of its former territory and power, leaving those who depended on the state being a success in limbo. What should happen to these people is a question that will face many countries around the world but has become a hot topic with the decline of the caliphate and the subsequent humanitarian crisis in the region.
The recent case of the British schoolgirl Shamima Begum illustrates this problem well. When it was found that she was still alive, having been previously presumed dead, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of British citizenship – effectively banning her from re-entering the UK as she would be unlikely to get a visa given her history.
A two day court hearing is currently underway
The question to be answered may be about her citizenship, but given that British citizens are free to travel to the UK, the decision of the appeal will effectively either allow her to return to the UK or leave her to her fate in the refugee camps and ruins that scatter the Islamic State she left to join.
Begum left the UK to join IS in February 2015, and until February 2019 her exact whereabouts were unknown. What is known is that during her time in IS, she married another young foreigner ten days after her arrival, had three children, and possibly worked as a recruiter of other young women, as an officer in the ‘morality police’ used to enforce shariah law, and helped construct suicide bombs.
When considering if she should be allowed to return, it’s important to understand why she left and what would happen if she did make it back.
Begum’s case isn’t that of a hardened jihadist jumping at a chance to commit terror in the name of Islam; Begum ‘defected’ to IS with two school friends at the age of 15, after herself having contact with another young British woman who defected before her. Given that both her friends who travelled with her and the woman who she contacted prior to leaving the UK are missing (presumed dead), allowing authorities to interview Begum about the recruitment strategies terrorist use on young people may provide valuable information without having to travel to Syria.
The reason this is important is that allowing Begum to return wouldn’t just mean letting her out on to the streets. Six months after she was rediscovered in the Syrian refugee camp, the Metropolitan Police requested anyone who had interviewed or contacted Begum to hand over all material they had that could help build a prosecution case against her, meaning it could be possible for her to be punished for her actions in supporting IS. Allowing her to return to face justice could send a signal to others thinking of defecting to similar terrorist or insurgent groups that they will face justice if caught. This could potentially tackle radical beliefs that the UK is willing to suspend the rule of law to target Muslims, which may have fuelled some of those who left to join IS following the West’s heightened fear of terrorism post-9/11, which has led to some Western Muslims feeling alienated from their home countries. Given that she would be unlikely to face trial under the weak and strained justice systems of Iraq and Syria, the best option to let Begum face justice is to allow her to return and stand before a UK court.
There is also the question of whether Begum really knew what she was doing when she left to join IS, and if it is proportional to strip her of citizenship for a decision she made when she was 15. She has lost all three of her children, her most recent to untreated pneumonia in a refugee camp, cannot return to her husband’s home country of the Netherlands and has no recourse to Bangladeshi assistance as they do no recognise her as a citizen. Leaving a lone young woman in these conditions not only brings the UK’s image as a country which respects the rule of law and its citizens’ rights into disrepute but may allow her to fall back into the waiting arms of other anti-Western groups who could prey on her feelings of abandonment and rejection. Leaving her with nothing may not only be unjust but could actually be harmful in the long run by leaving her to be free in an area where terrorist groups still maintain powerful presences.
The Arguments against Begum's return:
No matter her age or mindset at the time of leaving, by her own admission she participated in the horrors committed by IS through her direct support of their ideals and law, as well as having children with an active IS soldier. She has also said that she “doesn’t regret” leaving to join IS and may pose a threat to our national security if brought back. Given that a lot of evidence that may be needed to convict her could be missing or lost, witnesses may be dead, unaware of the trial or too afraid to testify, it may not be worth bringing her back if there is no guarantee it is safe.
WATCH: Shamima says she has "no regrets" in televised interview
Bringing her back to face trial would create a burden on UK taxpayers. She has already been granted Legal Aid (state-funded legal assistance, often in the form of free legal representation by a qualified solicitor) for her remote appeal, and the costs of locating her, bringing her back to the UK, then trying her in court and the potential costs of housing her in prison, rehabilitating her if possible, and then monitoring her if she is released could all be avoided by leaving her to her fate thousands of miles from our shores. As it is estimated 800 UK citizens left to join IS, this tool could be invoked against others who wish to return, saving the legal system great deals of time and money.
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Finally, the power of stripping citizenship may also work to dissuade those who would also wish to travel abroad, as well as work to isolate them from doing harm to the UK. If there’s the potential for loss of citizenship for those who conspire against the UK or our allies, potential terrorists may decide against travelling abroad or continuing to associate with terrorist groups at all. However, this option is only available to those who have or are eligible to more than one citizenship as states are not permitted to leave people stateless and preventing potential terrorist from leaving may mean they carry out their attacks in the UK instead.
In conclusion, stripping a British citizenship of their right to be considered British for their actions whilst still a child is no doubt a controversial action – especially given that the allegations are so serious, and that there is the possibility of coercion or encouragement in her commission of the alleged crimes. This could set a dangerous precedent if found to be legal, especially as it would mean British citizenship hinges on whether whichever government is in power thinks you should retain it. Against this, the arguments about leaving Begum do hold as she did join and aid a known terrorist organisation, which she doesn’t seem to at least regret. Bringing her back to the UK could mean the UK should allow back those who weren’t children, who weren’t possibly groomed into joining, or have committed worse crimes or if there is little prospect of conviction. What is certain is that the debate is likely to continue, whether Begum gets her citizenship restored or not.