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.