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Shamima Begum: The Sensitive Case of IS Returnees

Although revoking citizenship may prevent the return of foreign fighters in the short term, it does not solve the problem and may also be illegal under both national and international laws.
Kristian Alexander, Shamima Begum, Shamima Begum UK citizenship, Shamima Begum UK citizenship appeal, Syria returnees, returning Islamic State fighters, jihadi brides, ISIS sex slaves, ISIS brides

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August 10, 2020 09:43 EDT

Born in the UK to Bangladeshi parents, Shamima Begum left London as a 15-year-old in 2015. Using her British passport, she traveled to Turkey with two of her friends from school. From there, Begum and her friends crossed into Syria, where they met their Islamic State (IS) contacts. While in Syria, Begum married an IS fighter. On February 19 this year, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission had stripped Begum of her citizenship as she was deemed to be a national security threat. On July 16, however, UK authorities granted this now adult British woman, who had joined a terrorist group as a teenager four years earlier, the right to return to Britain to challenge the UK government’s removal of her citizenship.

The commission ruled that the decision to revoke Begum’s British citizenship did not render her stateless as, by default, the United Kingdom also considered her a Bangladeshi citizen “by descent.” However, the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it did not consider her as a citizen of that country. A statement released by Begum’s British lawyers argued that she indeed had never visited Bangladesh, nor had she ever applied for dual nationality.

Made in Britain: Understanding the Realities of Radicalization


In the meantime, the press has chastised Begum, who remains a detainee in a camp operated by ethnic Kurdish militias in northern Syria, for making controversial statements such and saying that seeing her first severed head did not faze her “at all” and suggesting that people should “have sympathy” toward her for everything she has been through.

Why Women?

England’s Court of Appeal, in turn, unanimously agreed that Begum should be granted the right to have a fair and effective appeal of the decision to strip her of her citizenship, but only if she is permitted to come back to Britain. Of course, that does not guarantee the reinstatement of her citizenship rights, just that she has a right to present her case in person. Regardless of the legal wrangling and the debate about the legality that her case has sparked, this example sheds some light on the issue of contextualizing female IS supporters and terrorists and the legality of stripping Western-born suspects of their European or North American citizenship.

There has been some academic discussion of why women, especially young women, who were born, raised and educated in the West, migrate to IS-held territory and join terrorist groups, leaving behind family, friends and a way of life while abandoning liberal values and opportunities that countries such as the UK offer them. It is difficult to ascertain whether a particular female, such as Shamima Begum, was a victim of IS, an active supporter or both. The widely circulated stories of “jihadi brides” have projected an image of confused and naïve girls and women traveling to join the Islamic State. While certain dynamics lured a number of females to IS-held territories, many went of their own free will. Yet it is highly debatable to what extent a 15-year-old understands the realities of this extremist group.

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Muslim women have migrated to IS-held areas for a multitude of reasons, including the romantic ideal of marrying a “lion” — a supposedly brave and noble warrior — looking for an adventure and contributing to the establishment of an Islamic “caliphate” regulated by strict enforcement of Sharia law. The sense that joining the Islamic State empowers people to live meaningful lives draws many of the migrant women. One study suggests that besides issues of belonging and identity — and a skewed interpretation of Islam — it is, in the case of young women like Begum, online social networks that appeared to be the primary venue and driving factor for radicalization. It turns out that the vast majority of foreign women who traveled to Syria and Iraq served IS primarily as one of several housewives or sex slaves.

It is only by understanding the motivations and experiences of those who have gone to fight abroad that governments can prevent the recruitment of another generation of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. The enemies of the Islamic State have ostensibly defeated the group in the Middle East, yet unknown numbers of surviving IS fighters have found the means to relocate to Afghanistan. Permutations of IS and other extremist groups are also active in many African countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria and  Somalia, among others. Aside from Afghanistan, other places in South Asia are not immune.

Displaced Burden

The UK, US and some other countries have chosen to prevent the return of foreign fighters by revoking their citizenship. Although such actions may prevent the return of foreign fighters in the short term, they do not solve the problem and may also be illegal under both national and international laws. In several instances, this will simply displace the burden and force weakened states such as Syria and Iraq to deal with the consequences of radicalization. It may also instill further grievances and act as a trigger for radicalization into surviving Western-born radicals who may plot terrorist attacks against Western targets.

In certain cases, citizenship revocation has led to concerns over statelessness. Rendering an individual stateless runs against Western legal principles and is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In several legal systems, there is a lack of sufficient evidence to prosecute female returnees because of their domestic roles in Syria and Iraq. Another challenge associated with prosecutions of foreign fighters lies with demonstrating intent. This applies both to the intent of the actions committed while in the war zone and the intent of travel for aspiring foreign fighters. There is also an argument that many such individuals, especially the juveniles, were victims of human trafficking.

A more fruitful approach would be to allow a panel of experts to determine whether an individual returning to the home country is dangerous or disillusioned. The prime example of this approach is Denmark, which has already implemented assessment protocols that allow authorities to determine the individual circumstances for each returnee. Based on the results of such screenings, Danish police, together with social services, develop a plan of action for each returnee. Together, they decide whether a returnee is imprisoned, placed in a rehabilitation program or is assigned a combination of both approaches. It is extremely difficult to separate a victim from a perpetrator, and the boundaries can be particularly murky for foreign fighters.

*[Gulf State Analytics is a partner organization of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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