Alan Lis: Shamima Begun, or rather the case of Westerners in ISIS’s ranks

A couple of weeks ago citizens of the United Kingdom found yet another topic, like if Brexit was not enough, that divided them into two opposing camps: those that wanted to give Shamima Begum a second chance and accepted the idea of her coming back to the UK formed one camp, whereas the other one was created by opponents of her being anywhere near the British borders. The example of Shamima Begum is only a single illustration of a complicated problem that many countries have been facing these days, namely- what is ought to be done with men and women that willingly left their homelands in order to join the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

Shamima Begun, at this moment 19 years old, left her family and home in the United Kingdom for Syria at the age of 15. With two other girls, she flew to Turkey and joined the jihad in Syria crossing the border between the two countries. In her latest interview, Begum confirmed that one of her friends that had traveled with her to Syria died and that she had no information of the whereabouts of the other. Not long after joining the ranks of jihadists, Ms. Begum got married to a Dutch ISIS fighter, with whom she had three children. Sadly, all of them died. The youngest, only three weeks old, reportedly died of pneumonia in the first week of March 2019, not long after the world heard Shamima’s story mainly because of the two interviews that she gave.

The main motivation For Shamima to go back to the UK was her newborn, whom she said it would be impossible to raise in the refugee camp. Ms. Begum said she wanted to have her son live a better life than he would in Syria. This is of course understandable. However, what is significant and needs to be acknowledged, during the interview with Sky News she did not seem genuinely sorry for the victims of the Islamic state- dead men, raped women, orphaned children- and she still seems to support the strict Islamic Sharia law. Since the second interview, Ms. Begun has been said to have left the camp she was living in because of death threats she received from others that found shelter there.

Allegedly, Shamima Begum neither took part in combat nor was she trained to do so. She claims to be a wife of an ISIS fighter and thus to have been preoccupied with what housewives do all around the world- at least that is the story she decided to stick to. The truth is that it would be extremely difficult for security services to verify her words against her deeds and therefore no one can be sure what Begun was really up to.  Of similar opinion on this topic is a large part of the British society, amongst whom is the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who ordered stripping Ms Begum off her British citizenship, making an argument that she is eligible for the citizenship of Bangladesh, and therefore would not become a stateless person (had she been to become one,  according to the British law Mr. Javid would not have been able to give such order). However, the government of Bangladesh denied Mr. Javid’s argument and refused to take any action with regards to Ms. Begum, saying that it has nothing to do with this matter of the British government.

As far as the security of British people is concerned, allowing Ms. Begum to return to the UK would be putting them in danger. No one knows for sure what she has really been up to in Syria- she might have been, as she claims, only an ISIS’s fighter wife, not involved in perpetrating any sort of violence; but there is a chance that she lied during the interview and she had received some military training indeed, and that she might be involved in a plot against the UK now. Although if that is the truth it would be a very much short-sighted plan on the part of ISIS- if Ms. Begum indeed took part in a terrorist plot against the UK, this would certainly minimize chances of other ISIS followers to be allowed to return to their homelands, and thus somewhat reduce ISIS’s ability to strike against the US or European countries using Westerners in its ranks.

Her example illustrates well the situation of hundreds (if not more) foreign fighters who now that ISIS lost its last scraps of territory, face the uncertainty as to their future. There are voices that many of them, just like MS. Begum, want to go back to their home countries, however, one can justifiably question their will for a peaceful life upon their arrival. Indeed, news reports have it that a number of these fighters openly say that they do not regard the territorial collapse of ISIS as the end of their struggle, and they aim at continuing their fight. Neither the US, nor the UK, nor any of the European countries for that matter would welcome their citizens coming back from Syria or Iraq with open arms. Some of those countries openly claimed that they will not take them back. From the domestic security perspective, they seem to be right.

Shamima Begum, as any returning jihadist, is a goldmine when it comes to possessed information and knowledge and is thus invaluable for intelligence and secret services. The question is, however, whether she or other jihadists would be willing to share the information they possess. Their fate is, at this moment, unknown and the perspective of them returning to their home countries is uncertain, to say the least. When it comes to Ms. Begum and others like her, politicians, intelligence and secret services, and the average citizens face a political, security, and moral dilemma. One thing is certain- ISIS may have lost its territory indeed, however, as long as its followers remain hostile towards everybody else, no one can speak of a de facto end of this terrorist organization.