In the heady days of its territorial expansion across Syria and Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) drew in Western recruits like moths to an incandescent flame. For a group looking to internationalise its bloodthirsty cause, each defection was a propaganda coup.
That was then. A single stronghold, Baghouz, now remains in the hands of the broken caliphate. Its power is sapped, its cause diminished – and the fate of those who risked life and limb to join the group is unclear.
Shamima Begum is one such individual. Alongside two school friends, she left her East London home aged just fifteen to become a jihadi bride, marrying a Dutch fighter. Tracked down in a Syrian refugee camp, her story is one of suffering and hardship – she’s just given birth to a baby boy, having previously lost two young infants – but also bearing the burden of her own decisions.
Professing her innocence and claiming she poses no threat, Begum wants to return to the UK with her child. Making her case for repatriation in a spree of interviews, she says she is capable of rehabilitation. Her narrative is muddled, beseeching sympathy while talking glibly of IS’s ritual beheadings. She is everything you would expect of an indoctrinated 19-year-old – contrite, conflicted, and desperate.
Begum’s case and those like it have opened up fierce debate in the West about the return of IS recruits. The group fed on the impressionable minds of marginalized youngsters, weaponizing their discontent with Western society. Should these people be offered a chance at rehabilitation with the goal of rejoining the society they so robustly rejected?
In Shamima’s case, age must be a factor. At the time of her departure, she was – in the eyes of accepted societal norms – too young to drive, to drink, to consent to sex. It is not too far of a leap to believe she was capable of a mistake about ideology.
But she was, by her own frank admission, “okay” with the executions and other horrors wrought by IS. Youth may explain her insensitivity to such atrocities, but it does not equal ignorance – oblivious to the group’s butchery she was not.
The British Government has moved swiftly to strip Begum of her UK citizenship, arguing that “there must be consequences for those that back terror”.
She now finds herself in a legal no-man’s-land. A government can’t render an individual stateless under international law, but they can rescind nationality if citizenship is held jointly elsewhere – the Brits believe Shamima is a Bangladeshi national on her mother’s side (something Dhaka fiercely disputes).
As fractious as her return might be, good could come of Begum’s repatriation. Having lived and breathed the horrors of a militant religious society, her voice would be a formidable asset in tackling radicalization. Slickly produced videos convinced her to pursue an Islamist life – her account of that existence could help cast out the false promises of fundamentalism.
Tania Joya, a former IS bride who renounced her faith and fled the caliphate, argues that “humanism and secular values” are often not taught in conservative Muslim homes – Shamima’s experience could be a help break down those strictures.
And there is risk in shutting the door on her altogether. For many disenchanted youngsters, the British Government’s response is typical of an institution which cares little for them – one which would rather let a young mother fester in a squalid camp than offer a helping hand. If Shamima, or worse, her baby, were to die overseas, they risk becoming martyrs for the very cause the civilized world is trying to stamp out.
But deterrents are often most effective when they’re dull, uncompromising instruments. By barring Begum, a powerful message has been sent: when it comes to terrorism, there are no second chances. If she were to return and looked to propagate her adopted doctrine, the damage could be immense.
Marshalling the force of the criminal justice system could achieve the best results. Putting Shamima and other returnees on trial in their home countries would stamp the rule of law’s dominance over twisted ideology, and contest any claims of wilfully inhumane treatment. Presenting fundamentalism as flagrant criminal activity would also help degrade its allure in impressionable minds.
The legal avenue can be complicated though. Criminality undertaken overseas is often difficult to prove in domestic courts, with evidence sparse or inadmissible. The USA has seen some IS recruits imprisoned – one man received a 20 year sentence – but others have walked for lack of proof. Shamima says she is prepared to go to prison if her return is greenlighted – though there’s little evidence her time as an Islamist housewife breached the law.
Behind bars may seem the most sensible place for returning militants, but radicalism can be contagious for those festering in prison. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) says it has some 800 foreign fighters in its custody – US President Donald Trump argues they must be put on trial in their mostly European nations of origin. An influx of radicals converging with organised crime within prison walls may have catastrophic consequences.
In Shamima’s case, the prospects of her returning to her family are very slim. Even if the expected appeal against the government’s ruling is successful, the use of British resources to bring back the teenage mother and those like her has been ruled out.
With IS’s final enclave about to fall, a hard fought victory against the brutal caliphate beckons. At a devastating human cost, primarily in the Middle East, but also on the blood-stained streets of Europe and elsewhere, the civilised world is on the brink of winning the war against barbarism. But with thousands of their nationals now caught in limbo, the question is: can they win the peace?