“I don’t regret coming here.”
These are the words of Shamima Begum, now aged 19, who left her life in Bethnal Green, East London, in February 2015 to answer the call of ISIS’s so-called caliphate. In an interview with the Times, Begum nonchalantly spoke of the violence and atrocities she had witnessed, while affirming that she held no regrets about joining the terrorist group.
Four years ago, the grainy CCTV images of 15-year-old Shamima with her school friends Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase at Gatwick Airport, as they made their way to Syria via Turkey, showed three of many Britons who decided to swap the safety of home for the utopian project offered by ISIS.
Now, heavily pregnant and having already lost two children in infancy, Begum spoke of choosing to escape from ISIS’s last territorial hold in Syria a fortnight ago, saying, “All I want to do is come home to Britain.” The notion of a woman who decided to turn her back on Britain by joining and staying with a group committed to its destruction, in words and deeds, will be anathema to many.
In the interview, Begum spoke about being unfazed at the sight of a decapitated head, described life in the caliphate as “normal” and said that the group’s failure to emerge as victors was largely down to internal corruption and oppression.
This self-confession paints a picture of a young woman who has been desensitised to barbaric violence, who considered life under a tyrannical theocracy to be normal and who appears to continue to hold onto some notion of a deserved victory against the enemies of Islam. There was no indication that she rejects the ideological objectives and the barbaric violence of the group.
For Begum, it was not wrong to join the caliphate, but the caliphate she wilfully joined started to get things wrong. She recognises that her actions will have consequences, knowing that she is likely to receive a hostile reception if she returns to Britain, but she would like to “live quietly with my child.”
The UK government’s updated counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, published in June 2018, outlines that the continued purpose of the Prevent strand is to safeguard and support vulnerable people to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. But a key feature of the 2018 update was the extension of Prevent’s remit to cover the rehabilitation and disengagement of those already involved in terrorism.
In updating the strategy, officials in Whitehall were acutely aware of the inevitable flow of returning foreign fighters. Meanwhile, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which received Royal Assent on 12 February, includes provisions making it an offence to travel to Syria, among other places, but this legislation will not be applied retrospectively. While this new law may strengthen the hand of prosecutors in future (though there are doubts about the efficacy of such provisions), the government needs to find a solution to the problem at hand.
There is massive uncertainty surrounding returnees. Begum is only one of many. At least 900 British Muslims, including up to 150 women, are believed to have travelled to join jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. This goes beyond a matter of urgency for the UK’s national security.
The West needs to do away with the false dichotomy that sees women who join ISIS as victims. In the dying days of the caliphate, ISIS U-turned on its stance towards female combatants. It was Begum’s decision to buy into ISIS’s narrative and travel to join the group thousands of miles away.
Part of the war on ISIS’s ideology is in ensuring that foreign fighters who return to Britain are dealt with swiftly, securely and in accordance with the law.
It is important to resist impulsive decision-making. Britain must not only take responsibility to investigate, prosecute and punish British nationals in accordance with the law but also provide the support structures that individuals need for rehabilitation. Justice need not be exclusively about punitive action.
With any foreign fighter, as a starting point, an admission of guilt for supporting or belonging to a proscribed terrorist organisation should allow authorities to immediately begin the process of ensuring that ISIS returnees receive the justice they deserve.