Friday, 15 February 2019

Shamima Begum: the (unpopular) case for compassion

She ran away from home at fifteen. Now she is nineteen and is nine months pregnant with her third child. Her first two children are already dead: a son died at the age of eight months, and a daughter at twenty-one months.

Her name is Shamima Begum, and she now says she wants to come home, because she doesn’t want her third child to die in the same way as the first two did.

But there’s a problem: Shamima left her home in Bethnal Green in east London to join the Islamic State group in Syria. She says she doesn’t regret her original decision but now she has had enough. She is, in tabloid-speak, a ‘jihadi bride.’

In a remarkable interview with Anthony Loyd of The Times, who found her in a Syrian refugee camp, she said: ‘I know what everyone at home thinks of me, as I have read all that was written about me online. But I just want to come home to have my child. That’s all I want right now. I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’

(If you haven’t already done so, listen to a recording of the interview here. I think you’ll be struck by how much like an ordinary London teenager she sounds.)

So suppose you had to make the decision. Would you allow her back to the UK? Or would you, like our wannabe next prime minister Sajid Javid, tell her: ‘If you have supported terrorist organisations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return.’

Sure, it sounds straightforward enough. Even at fifteen, Shamima Begum knew perfectly well what IS was and what it did – but did she have the maturity to understand the consequences of her decision to run away? Actions taken by children, even teenage children, are usually treated differently from those taken by adults. That, after all, is why the judicial system handles children differently from adults.

And let’s remind ourselves what the official police position was when she and her two schoolfriends ran off to Syria. In March 2015, the then head of counter-terrorism for the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley, said: ‘We have no evidence in this case that these three girls are responsible for any terrorist offences. They have no reason to fear, if nothing else comes to light, that we will be treating them as terrorists.’

His view now is that Shamima Begum should expect to be thoroughly investigated and, if the evidence suggests she has committed crimes, prosecuted as an adult, if she ever manages to find her way back to the UK. Which surely is just as it should be.

We know nothing, of course, of what she and her friends have been up to during their time in Syria. I’m sure UK intelligence officials would love an opportunity to talk to her to find out exactly what she did and what she knows. Yes, she joined a terrorist group, but does that automatically make her a terrorist?

Or does it make her a victim of grooming? And if she is a victim, given that she is a British citizen, does the UK government not have a duty of care, a responsibility to do what it can to remove her from danger and arrange for the help that she will certainly need?

Here’s what I would do, and I make no apology for being in what I suspect is a rather small minority of people who prefer compassion to condemnation when it comes to mistakes made by vulnerable teenagers.

First, British officials should make contact with the mainly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have been battling IS in its last redoubt. If, as may well be the case, there are British special forces on the ground, it shouldn’t be too difficult for them to find a frightened pregnant nineteen-year-old from Bethnal Green in a refugee camp.

Second, if she confirms that she does indeed want to come back to the UK – presumably after the imminent birth of her child – arrangements could be made. On arrival, she would be transferred into the custody of the police while her baby is placed in the care of her family or social services.

Police, security officials and social workers would then question her intensively to ascertain the degree to which she is still a vulnerable young person, quite possibly suffering severe trauma after spending four years in a war zone, and whether she was responsible for, or participated in, any criminal acts while she was there. (It is, of course, perfectly possible that she is both.)

But let us also consider the words of Richard Barrett, former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6, who presumably knows a thing or two about how to protect the UK against terrorist threats. Writing about British nationals who decided to join IS, he wrote: ‘Like it or not, these individuals were products of our society, and it would make sense to take a good, hard look at why they turned their backs on it in such dramatic fashion. This can help us find ways to build the social cohesion that we increasingly need in the face of growing nativism and intolerance.’

Much has been made of Shamima Begum’s statement to The Times: ‘I have no regrets.’ But I’d suggest that equal attention is paid to what else she said. ‘The caliphate is over. There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory … I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’

To me, they sound like the words of a frightened, exhausted young woman, not the words of a dangerous terrorist sympathiser. She made a terrible mistake and will have to live with the consequences. But unless we discover that she was responsible for some ghastly IS atrocities, she surely deserves a chance to try to build a better life than the one she had in Syria.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with you for various reasons, Robin. Firstly, she has stated that as an adult and no longer a child she has no regrets regarding her actions. We may have no knowledge of whether she has committed crimes against humanity of not, but she appears to have supported those who did.

But this is not a super-rich country that can offer open doors to all. We have a struggling health service, a struggling police service, local councils financially forced to cut more and more services - to children, the elderly, libraries, road maintenance, etc., etc. In other words, better things to spend our limited money on.

There are people in many countries who are desperate to have the chance to live better lives but our doors remain closed to them. If she somehow arrives in Dover or wherever, decisions can be made then as to whether or not allow her entry, but until then we should spend nothing on helping her to return.

Rita said...

She is a apparently a British citizen, has no other nationality, and surely as such is entitled to return here - even if it could be proved she has committed terrorist acts while in Syria. No doubt MI5 or Special Branch will be monitoring her carefully after she returns. I agree totally with your view, Robin. She may of course be some kind of sleeper IS agent but the fact that she has not actually "expressed remorse" cannot prevent her coming back.

Tinkersdamn said...

I'm reminded: 'A man [nation] is not defiled by what goes into his [its] mouth, but by what comes out of it'.

No man or nation would wish to be played for the fool, but I suspect a man or nation might be foolish were he/it not at least open to forgiveness (for the self and others).

IS was/is a horror, and so was the launch of war based on false pretenses which contributed to the rise of IS.

Let's hope good judgement is exercised in determining what may have been in Shamima's heart and actions.

Political Refugee from the Global Village said...

She is in a comparable position to British citizens fighting for the communists in Spain. The red terror was as bad as Isis.

Political Refugee from the Global Village said...

Clearly no public money should be spent helping her return.

Unknown said...

I do agree that she should come back to our country, and after thorough investigation be tried for her actions whilst in Syria. Depending on what she has been doing there, she should be allowed to resume a normal life here with her family. Ingrid Rivers

Tinkersdamn said...

I recall a US press conference where W. Bush announced he had just recieved an intelligence report that concluded Iraq was six months away from developing an atomic bomb. Blair, at his side, bore a frown and nodded in knowing ascent to Bush's every word. One week later we disovered (amazingly from Fox News which had requested a copy of the intelligence report) that the report W. Bush alluded had been drafted some ten years earlier during his father's administration. The war on Iraq provided the fuel for IS and so much else.

I wonder if Shamima's actions led to the levels of terror and casualties as did the war on Iraq. I might wonder if Bush and Blair being held to account by receiving millions in payments from interests in the years since their war is on par with denying Shamima her citizenship, but then, I know neither Bush nor Blair were fifteen year old girls at the time, after all, they were heads of State.