ISIS and the UK: the Case of Shamima Begum

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

A former Isis fighter once complained to me that western volunteers who travelled to the so-called Islamic State in northeastern Syria were a burden because they did not speak Arabic, had no military experience, knew little about Islam and had often come because they were bored or unhappy at home.

He said that their main advantage from the point of view of Isis was propagandistic, since by making the difficult journey to the caliphate, they showed that its ideology had world wide appeal.

Shamima Begum, whom the Supreme Court decided today should not be allowed back into Britain to challenge the removal of her British citizenship, has already more than fulfilled Isis’s expectations. She did so in 2015 when, at the age of 15, she travelled to Syria to join Isis, her melodramatic journey, on which she was accompanied by two school friends from Bethnal Green Academy, provoking a furore in the British media that was repeated when she re-emerged in the Kurdish-controlled Roj refugee camp in Syria in 2019.

The British government would have been well-advised to leave the whole issue alone. Anything it did could only give the Begum story legs and enhance her value to Isis and al-Qaeda-type jihadis as a propaganda icon. Ministers should have done absolutely nothing, allowing her to return to Britain. She should then have been charged with aiding terrorism, particularly if she poses “a real and current threat to national security” as she does according to the Home Office lawyers.

But government ministers do not like to be seen to be doing nothing when they have an opportunity to sound tough and in control. The home secretary of the day, Sajid Javid, stripped Begum of her British citizenship, and thereby ensured her an ocean of publicity. I do not mean that she and Isis planned it that way, but this outcome was inevitable and foreseeable.

In the eyes of many the government had converted her from a supporter of a movement of mass murderers into a pathetic and pitiable victim hounded by unfeeling authorities. The government was pursuing her, moreover, through an act of questionable legality that was bound to be contested in the courts. Nor is the issue going to go away because of today’s decision since it places her in a legal limbo, saying that her appeal against her deprivation of British nationality should be postponed until she is in a position to make it without compromising public safety.

Some will argue that she was a young teenager when she first went to Syria and cannot be held entirely responsible for her actions. She may even have been “groomed” into joining Isis – although this assumes that a 15-year-old cannot take decisions on their own and is then absolved of responsibility when they turn out to be mistaken.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).