An extraordinary interview for the Times by Anthony Loyd with Shamima Begum, a British female migrant to Islamic State (Isis), sheds light on the many dilemmas now facing Western governments as the group’s territorial control collapses. Indeed, in Syria the group has now effectively lost control of all of its redoubts.
Although many of those who travelled to Isis died in Syria or Iraq, hundreds more like Begum have been caught and are now in the custody of the largely Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). No one is sure what to do next.
The SDF are technically a militia, operating as non-state actors without any legal or diplomatic standing. Western governments are reluctant to engage with them directly because of the difficulties in securing convictions against many of those who have been detained.
For all kinds of legal reasons, much of what is called “battlefield evidence” in this case would not be admissible in court, either falling short on evidential grounds or because of the manner in which it was obtained. We do not, for example, use intercept evidence in UK courts.
The result is that some repatriated British fighters could simply walk free once they return. Clearly, that is a situation no one wants. Another option is that they could be convicted of lesser crimes – but this poses problems of its own.
Convicted IS fighters will occupy a laudatory position within the prison estate, particularly among those convicted for domestic terrorism offences. They will also have an opportunity to use their experiences to radicalise those from the general inmate population and to educate them in any firearms or explosives proficiencies they may have acquired.
Beyond the fighters are those who travelled to Isis territory in non-combat roles. Although this applies mostly to women, there were also some men with disabilities from Western countries who made the journey but did not fight. This poses another dilemma. Is it merely a crime to have travelled to IS territory without actually engaging in combat?
Of course, those who voluntarily chose to travel did so out of ideological commitment and support for the group’s overarching worldview – that of the Caliphate it sought to construct. Throughout history, political scientists and historians have pointed towards what is now called “propaganda of the deed”, where an act is invested with a higher purpose than itself. It is, instead, an exemplar for others, where the conduct of one serves to inspire, motivate or, indeed, warn onlookers.
This is how the actions of non-combatant Isis migrants should be seen. Their decision to migrate served a distinct ideological purpose for both themselves and the group they elected to join. The unspoken corollary of their actions was to normalise something grotesquely abnormal – that of Isis’s state-building project.
Away from the images of ultra-violence, much of the group’s propaganda focused on the apparent banality of their enterprise: what made them extraordinary was just how ordinary they could be. Indeed, Begum references this very issue in her Times interview, remarking that life inside the de facto Isis capital, Raqqah, was “a very ordinary life.”
Begum is unusual in also stating that she does not regret joining Isis. Many of those now detained by the SDF are keen to profess their remorse and highlight the group’s shortcomings. Yet no such contrition was forthcoming when Isis enjoyed better times.
Research centres such as the one I lead at King’s College London (the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation) archived millions of pieces of output from foreign fighters who cheered attacks in the West. When one occurred, they agitated for more. They celebrated the beheadings of Western hostages such as the American journalist James Foley. His death followed months of agonising torture, which included beatings and waterboarding. Foreign fighters mocked and belittled the sexual slavery of Yazidi women, the detention of their children, and murder of their menfolk.
In its reticence to repatriate these detainees, the British government is broadly reflecting public opinion in regard to both fighters and non-combatants. It is content to leave them in Syria for now and to allow the current limbo to persist. There is, quite understandably, little sympathy for those who freely elected to join Isis.
This does, however, lead to a much thornier issue – that of minors who were either taken to Syria by their parents or who were born there to British migrants. What becomes of them? Begum is currently nine months pregnant and is due to give birth at any moment, having already lost two children while in Syria.
There is a moral case to repatriate these children and to, perhaps, settle them with extended family members residing in the West. That is an option few would likely object to, but the challenges for the government remain nonetheless. If it is shown to be negotiating with the SDF to repatriate children, then pressure will grow to repatriate others too.
Similarly, some of the minors who were taken to Isis territory were taken as young adolescents at the start of their teens. They have now lived in Isis territory for a significant portion of their formative years. They will have invariably suffered combat stresses, seen horrific things, and been exposed to Isis’s ideology. A complex package of psychological and mental health support would be needed in these cases.
All this demonstrates just how complex and intractable the issue of detained fighters and non-combatant migrants within Syria has become. Here, as with so much else relating to the bitter Syrian conflict, there are neither easy nor quick solutions.