Like many people, I have been reading a lot of articles about the issues of ISIS returnees, which arguably became a mainstream topic after the London Times and BBC interviewed Shamima Begum. Like many there are mixed emotions about Ms Begum and her plight. Questions have come up in regards to whether she was groomed online, or whether she enthusiastically joined ISIS. I do not know the answer to that, and many commenting on this also do not know the answer.
Why people turn to terror is a very complex issue and there is no single answer. The only commonality I have seen in my reading and interviews around the subject of radicalisation and turning to terrorism, is that generally the individual in question is unsettled with themselves and their life circumstances. And that can mean many things for many people.
With regards to Shamima Begum, she was and still is a teenager. I’m not being groundbreaking here by saying that being a teenager is a difficult time for anyone. All of us have memories that can be embarrassing or in some cases shameful. It’s a time in which we start to form our identity and some of our early choices can shape our later life for good or bad. I don’t think that should give her a free pass, as she did follow her convictions through to the extreme and fly to Turkey and then made her way to Syria and joined what has arguably been one of the most brutal terrorist organisations in recent history. It is possible that she may have even participated in recruiting other young girls to follow in her footsteps. It is also possible she may have been involved with the brutal treatment of Yazidi women who were taken and kept as sex slaves for male fighters.
With all of the above it is actually hard to know what she did and did not do and to what extent that she was involved within the inner workings of ISIS. And this presents a huge legal problem as far as I can see as it will be very hard in a criminal court, without eye witness testimony and other physical evidence to prove what she did or did not do.
Does that then mean that the British government were right to strip her of her British citizenship? I do not believe they are. In fact I think that very act does a few things, it firstly plays into terrorist propaganda about how the West is deeply racist and that Muslims will never be safe or able to co-exist in the West. Secondly the government have lost any high ground with her case as they have literally washed their hands of her (pending court appeal by her family). Thirdly they have made her someone else’s problem, which has unknown repercussions, could she end up in another European country or somewhere else and be allowed to spread terrorist propaganda or worse? We have also lost an opportunity to behave like compassionate adults in this situation, by ignoring her we have lost the opportunity to challenge any extremists beliefs she may have. I also have to ask, with the world watching, what example has Britain set?
Another point that does deeply concern me about the conundrum of ISIS returnees is what if people manage to return and escape any justice for their actions? As I mentioned before ISIS has been involved in some of the most horrific acts of terror in the Middle East and has been linked to the 2017 terrorist attacks in Manchester, London and the many many attacks across Europe from the Charlie Hebdo attack, Bataclan terror attack and the vehicle based attacks that suddenly became popular around 2015.
Without a calm and legal focused debate, we risk allowing ISIS returnees the opportunity to get away with their crimes, go on to commit more acts of terror and use examples of the Home Office stripping peoples citizenship for their recruitment purposes.
I personally do not know the answer to this problem, but I do know there are some excellent people out there who do and have been tirelessly been working on this complex issue in government and academia for years.
if time will allow I hope to record a special or series of special podcasts on this issue. But until I do I hope you will take a moment to listen or re-listen to some of my past podcast interviews on this deeply complex and important issue around terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam, by groups with a political agenda.
The Double Bind: The Anglo American Left and the Islamic Far Right
Former CIA officer on Islam and CounterTerrorism
Salafi Jihadism: The History of an idea
The Battle For British Islam
The Rage: The vicious circle of Islamist and Far-Right extremism
Prevent, what it is and how it works
Invisible Martyrs, how and why some women turn to terrorism and are exploited
I hope you find these interviews helpful.
Thanks for listening
All the best