When Shamima Begum was first found in Al-Hawl, a sprawling refugee camp in Syria, her lack of remorse was striking.
“I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago,” she told Anthony Loyd – a journalist from The Times. “And I don’t regret coming here.”
Begum spoke candidly about her “normal life in Raqqa”. She recalled being unperturbed “when I saw my first severed head in a bin”. Amid the gory detail was a plea. “Now all I want to do is come home to Britain,” Begum – at this point nine months pregnant – told Loyd.
For the first time since that interview, in February 2019, her wish looks set to be fulfilled. The Court of Appeal has ruled that Begum, now 20, can return to the UK to fight a Home Office decision to revoke her citizenship on security grounds last year.
It has cleaved open a debate which is less about an Isis bride marooned in the desert and more about Britain itself – and whether we are able to take responsibility for a mess of our own making.
If we let Shamima Begum back in the country, the argument goes, we’ll never be to kick her out again. The Court of Appeal has usurped the Home Secretary’s power in deciding who should be allowed in and out of Britain – and now the floodgates will open, with hundreds of unrepentant terrorists to follow.
When she returns, it’ll be difficult to prosecute her – because any wrongdoing took place in a war zone thousands of miles away. Monitoring her will cost the taxpayer millions. And besides, you wouldn’t want her living next door, would you?
These arguments – while compelling – have at their core a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of radicalisation.
Weak and flawed system
Shamima Begum was a 15-year-old girl, a child, when she left this country to journey to Syria. She was groomed and exploited by extremists online, sold a vision of nirvana in the so-called Caliphate that, she believed, was an improvement on the community she decided to leave.
This is not to say she was right, nor to strip her of her any agency. It was, ultimately, her decision to join Isis. She deserves to be questioned, investigated and even prosecuted for what she participated in.
But it is short-sighted and self-defeating to claim that, since she turned her back on Britain, Britain should turn its back on her.
Begum was not radicalised in a vacuum. If we wash our hands of her, we are effectively absolving ourselves of any role in her radicalisation and treating her as a lone wolf, detached from the realities of British society that caused her to leave in the first place.
She was born and educated here. When she did leave, in 2015, it was our education system and our security services that failed to spot the signs. While this is a story of individual wrongdoing, it is also one of a weak and flawed system that is incapable of stopping its young people from being radicalised.
If we keep shirking tough conversations about the root causes of radicalisation, we will never understand why she left in the first place – and we won’t be able to prevent the next Shamima Begum from following in her footsteps.
A year or so after his first meeting with Begum, Loyd himself wrote that she “was worthy of a second chance”. He had assumed that his story would “ultimately lead to her retrieval and rehabilitation: that Britain would respond to the discovery of the Bethnal Green girls, by bringing her home.”
We finally have a chance to rise to the challenge, and deal with this incredibly complex issue head on. Shamima Begum, at her core, is a British problem. It is entirely right that she is dealt with here.