Ignoring UK terrorists like Shamima Begum is not the answer

Posted: March 5, 2021 in Times
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Back on my one of my more traditional topics which has become a lot less newsworthy of late in a new short piece for UK’s The Times Red Box about the never ending Shamima Begum case. Am sure this is not the last we will hear of this case, and my sense is that the subsequent problems that might emerge from the case are only likely to get longer the more she is left out in Syria. Hard to see how this is going to end well sadly.

Ignoring UK terrorists like Shamima Begum is not the answer

As she has for almost three years, Shamima Begum continues to sit in a dusty camp in Syria waiting for some resolution to her stage in life. Having made a catastrophically bad decision at 15, she is bound in a limbo to which there likely seems no end. The problems around her case, however, have not been resolved by the Supreme Court’s decision that simply prolongs her stasis.

There are numerous questions around her case, but three in particular distinguish themselves as needing immediate attention. First is the problem of her age. When she ran away to Syria at 15, she was committing a criminal terrorist act at an age younger than an anonymous Cornwall boy who pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to being a key UK figure of the online extreme right-wing group Feuerkrieg Division.

As a key organiser for the group online, he helped recruit others, vet members, and pushed followers online to move forwards to committing online acts of terrorism. Having pleaded guilty, he was given a two-year youth rehabilitation order, while a 17-year-old he had recruited and stirred into action was given a five-year custodial sentence for planning a terrorist attack.

It is difficult to compare the cases of course in part as we do not know what Begum did while she was in Syria. However, it does seem odd that our criminal justice system is able to handle teenage terrorists with relatively light custodial sentences while this young woman who started down a path when younger than them is on the receiving end of a literal life sentence.

We seem able to handle murderers, rapists, and other serious criminals through our ordinary criminal justice system, but we are incapable of managing a fanatical young woman.

Putting this to one side, it is also important to realise how utterly porous and unstable the situation in which Begum finds herself is. The camps in Syria are managed by a Kurdish fighting group that is ill-suited to keeping them and is far more pre-occupied with its own survival than the fate of those sitting in the camps. From their perspective, the foreigners are useful in that they keep the world’s attention on them, but they do not much care what actually happens to them.

The result has been regular escapes and clear evidence of support from networks back in the homes where they came from. In February, Turkish authorities detained French, Russian and New Zealand Isis women who had managed to sneak out of Syria. Investigations by UK newspapers have shown how online funding networks exist with links to the UK to raise money to help Isis women in these camps.

The point is that as static as the camps are, the people within them are not. This means that the method of simply leaving people over there and hoping the problem will go away is not an answer. And far more dangerous than leaving them in the camp is the prospect of them escaping unfettered and unobserved.

There is a final American angle to this dilemma. While President Biden is doubtless going to be focused on other things for the time being, it is a source of continued irritation in Washington that Europe has not found a way of managing its nationals in these camps.

While under Trump this complaint joined a long list of irritants with an administration that most wanted to try to avoid having to deal with, under Biden, the question will become more pressing and harder to ignore. Europeans spent a lot of time telling Washington off for Guantanamo Bay. How long before some in Washington start to draw similar comparisons?

There is no doubt that managing the return of Begum and the many others who joined Isis will be complicated. But the answer to this problem is to deal with it head on and on a case by case basis, rather than uniformly strip passports and dump on someone else people who are British responsibilities. Doubtless some of these individuals are hardened and irredeemable criminals who should serve long sentences for their crimes, but it is equally likely that some may be people who can be rehabilitated after some punishment. In this way they are similar to the many of thousands of others who have been through the British criminal justice system.

The answer to terrorism is to treat it like an ordinary criminal act rather than an extraordinary behaviour. We seem able to do that with teenage terrorists at home, it is not clear why we cannot with Begum.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute

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