Shamima Begum left to go to Syria when she was just 15 years old. Groomed online by ISIS’ well-documented tactics, she was placed in an alien-environment, in cultural and linguistic isolation; “married” to an adult Dutchman within 10-days of her arrival (meaning she was being raped); exposed to brutal violence; in daily fear for her life from the US airstrikes that killed friends; forced to witness her first two children die (one of starvation).
Criminal though she is, she is by any definition a victim of the most appalling child sexual exploitation (CSE).
Refusing her the right of return all-but signs her death warrant. She has made enemies everywhere through openly supporting and now seemingly abandoning ISIS. Bringing her back to the UK to stand trial and be held accountable for her crimes under the safety of the rule of law would have been a sign of strength that would have protected the UK – not a security threat that weakened it.
Denying Begum’s return, fuels the narrative of terrorist organisations and hardens their resolve (now and in the future) by accentuating that idea of “us and them”, if it is made clear that what is faced is a fight to the death.
Reinforcing this idea of societies that are totally juxtaposed forgets a critical part of counter-insurgency: the battle for “hearts and minds”. This tactic makes it impossible for insurgent groups to recruit new followers, as their ideas and recruitment narratives are devalued by preventing their target audience from being drawn to them. Successful counter-insurgency efforts by British forces in places such as in Malaya have demonstrated this, where communist guerrillas were offered safety in exchange for surrendering to be held accountable. Showing prospective terrorists justice and the rule of law rather did not undermine security – but reinforced it and ended the conflict far sooner than it would otherwise have done. By contrast, in cases like Guantanamo Bay, where ‘security threats’ were detained without trial and tortured, security was not improved, but recruitment for terrorist groups such as Al Qa’eda was actively increased.
A bigger consideration than denying terrorists recruitment narratives should be the value Begum and her story can offer in fighting extremism domestically by strengthening the PREVENT programme. Understanding her will be invaluable in helping improve counter-terrorism methods to stop extremist groomers recruiting vulnerable people.
The PREVENT strategy is a powerful and effective tool for safeguarding the young. Its success depends on deep knowledge and understanding of the messages and ideologies the groups they battle employ. Ms Begum and her actions are a wealth of knowledge that should be fully examined and understood to identify valuable insights that can feed back into the programme. This would allow PREVENT to be at the cutting edge of known terrorist recruitment tactics, enabling it to continue to be a world leading programme in helping protect as many as possible from being lured into groups like ISIS.
Refining knowledge of those recruitment tactics is also valuable to help tackle the UK’s growing gang problem. At their core, jihadists, the far right, and gang leaders recruit people by presenting appealing narratives of fraternity, purpose in life, economic opportunity and riches. Their recruitment messages are at heart the same.
While PREVENT is not the tool used to engage young people and stop their descent into a world of drugs and stabbings, the principles the strategy applies to find counter narratives to dissuade vulnerable individuals from being recruited into violent movements applies to would-be gang nominals and jihadists. Outreach groups in London and Glasgow have demonstrated this already, and Begum’s story can help to draw attention to this need.
A final consideration. If Begum could be deradicalised, she would be a powerful ally in counter-extremist efforts. Deradicalisation is possible and while she has shown little remorse, having a child in a stable environment can be a critical factor that begins the deradicalisation process. With sustained engagement, under law enforcement supervision, there would have been a chance Begum could reform to become a former violent extremist.
Shamima Begum should have been allowed to return home to the UK. Aside from cruelly denying a CSE victim the help she needs, denying her request harms, not helps, the UK’s security. Recruitment narratives of those opposed to the British state will now be strengthened and an invaluable opportunity to improve domestic counter extremism and safeguarding work has been needlessly wasted. This, all because UK law enforcement is apparently incapable of policing a 19-year old.