One of Islamic State’s most famous migrants, Shamima Begum, gave birth to her third child, a son, last weekend. Originally from Bethnal Green, east London, Begum travelled to IS territory with two friends when they were schoolgirls aged 15 to 16. Upon arrival, all three found husbands, quickly married and settled into life in the so-called caliphate. Now that the IS state-building project has essentially collapsed, with the group losing all of its territorial control in Syria, most of those who survived the ferocious coalition campaign to push back IS have been captured by the largely Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Begum’s plight underscores just how complicated the situation surrounding captured foreign fighters has become in northern Syria. No one is too sure what should happen to them.
Her supporters point out that she was a child when she migrated to IS and that she has suffered various emotional and psychological traumas; her first two children died during her time in the country. Others point to Begum’s seeming lack of remorse for her actions. In interviews with Anthony Loyd from the Times, she explains that her disillusionment with the group stems from disappointment with its corruption and apparent oppression of “real” Muslims.
Talking to Quentin Sommerville, a BBC Middle East correspondent (see page 24), Begum equated the deaths of 22 people in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing to those of women and children killed by coalition efforts to defeat IS. There is, understandably, widespread opposition to the idea of bringing her back to Britain – which is where she now says she’d like to be.
Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has said the government will not actively try to repatriate Begum or the scores of other Britons in the same situation as her. He echoes a sentiment that is widespread and commonly held across Whitehall by those who are tasked with looking at the issue of returnees. Most are also sceptical about the intelligence value SDF detainees will have, given just how remote the domestic terror threat is from their experiences.
Yet despite public revulsion at the idea of accepting returnees, the government is legally obligated to allow its citizens to return home (the Home Office has announced that it intends to remove Begum’s British citizenship), should they make it to Britain. The issue must be carefully understood.
Begum and many like her are currently in SDF custody, under the control of a non-state actor. Britain has no consular or diplomatic presence in Syria and is therefore arguing that it is not in a position to help those who have been detained. However, were they to present themselves at a British diplomatic mission somewhere, or to make their way back to the UK independently, then our legal obligations would kick in.
This sleight is buying Whitehall officials some much needed wriggle-room. Otherwise, there are anxieties about the prospect of gaining convictions against returnees from IS due to concerns around evidence – its gathering, preservation and admissibility in our courts.
Even if convictions were secured, a related problem arises about where these prisoners should be housed. For example, if they are allowed to interact with the broader prison population there is a chance they would be seen as heroes and could radicalise others.
Returnees could also bring with them specialist knowledge about bomb-making and explosives, or firearms techniques that are otherwise unknown in the UK. To underscore just how important it is to limit that information, consider how many times bombs have been placed on British streets but then failed to detonate. Abortive attacks such as the 21/7 London public transport bombs in 2005, the Glasgow airport bombing in 2007 and the Giraffe restaurant bombing in Exeter in 2008 underscore how difficult it has been for homegrown terrorists to develop proficiency without help from abroad. British members of IS were acutely aware of this and, back when the group enjoyed better fortune, often boasted of using their “expertise” to inform and inspire ever more deadly attacks in the UK. Unsurprisingly, officials argue that bringing back any fighters from IS could represent a direct threat to national security.
Begum is just one of hundreds of foreigners from more than 40 different countries currently being detained by the SDF. No one is rushing to bring their citizens home, although the SDF insists it cannot continue to hold them all indefinitely and will soon have to consider alternatives.
To that end, even President Trump has weighed into the debate: “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 Isis fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” he wrote. “The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them. The US does not want to watch as these Isis fighters permeate Europe.”
There is characteristic hyperbole and bombast to the president’s tweets, but the underlying principle of his message lays bare the tensions that have gripped Western policymakers ever since the Syrian uprising first began in 2011.
It has become clear that what happens in Syria is not contained within Syria. The crisis has constantly drawn us in, often reluctantly and fatalistically, to choose between bad options and those that are even worse. The challenge of the SDF detainees once again demonstrates just how hopeless our options are.
Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for of the New Statesman and director of King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State