Returning Isis brides expose a woefully inadequate legal armoury
Is Shamima Begum a victim? Maybe she was deluded, at the age of 15, when she left Bethnal Green with two friends on a carefully planned journey to marry Isis jihadis. Four years on, apparently remorseless, having fled the caliphate only as it crumbled to a refugee camp in north-eastern Syria, Ms Begum looks like a hardened woman, not the “pregnant teen” the headlines describe. Yet she will almost certainly return to the UK — and may not even face jail. As one police officer sighed to me, “she’ll probably end up writing a book”.
The Begum case goes to the heart of the dilemma facing the authorities in Britain, Germany and France, as Isis is routed from its last strongholds by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some of the foreign fighters and jihadi brides who have been uprooted are seeking sanctuary in the region, rather than return to Europe. Others have been prevented from returning by the policy of “deprivation” — the removal of citizenship from dual nationals. But the problem of those without dual nationality, like Ms Begum, is unavoidable.
As part of the first wave of people travelling to Syria, Ms Begum and her friends were initially seen as misguided rather than threatening. The Metropolitan Police chief said in 2015 that the girls had committed no terrorist offences and — he implied — were safe to come home.
Between 2012 and 2015, many Brits travelled to Syria on humanitarian aid convoys, returned quickly, and were judged harmless. Others were easy to prosecute, having detailed their exploits on social media. Imran Khawaja, a jihadi who faked his death in Syria before slipping back to Britain, had posted pictures depicting his six months in a terrorist training camp. He was arrested and jailed for 12 years.
The second wave is different. Those who have stayed to the bitter end of the conflict are tough. They have covered their tracks better. There is scant chance of finding a fingerprint in Raqqa which would link them to a particular crime, especially if they are jihadi brides who claim not to have been directly involved in terror. Counter-terrorism officials are concerned that a woman who was not fazed by a severed head because it belonged to “an enemy of Islam” may pose a threat to national security. But that will be very hard to prove.
The Begum family’s lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, is playing the victim card. He describes her as “a very traumatised young person”, having endured the deaths of her two children. Mr Akunjee knows that Britain’s legal armoury is inadequate to deal with her case.
As a good liberal, I would argue that a British citizen like Ms Begum should return, be prosecuted for any crime she has committed, or be helped if she deserves help. But here I run up against an uncomfortable reality: some acts that should be illegal are not.
It is not a crime, in the UK, to marry an Isis fighter, or travel to the caliphate. The Australians have made it a crime to travel to certain regions, but a similar provision in the UK is only just about to become law. It is a crime to have aided and abetted a proscribed terrorist organisation. But sentences for that have been far too short to reflect what is arguably Ms Begum’s betrayal of her country by helping its enemies. Those enemies seek to destroy our democracy, our human rights and our people.
The concept of betrayal is an ancient one, covered historically by the law of treason. But the UK’s Treason Act of 1351 is unworkable, partly because it was framed to protect the monarch rather than the country. The think-tank Policy Exchange has argued persuasively that the act must be updated to make betrayal a specific crime, which must be punished. This has not happened — and not just because the machinery of lawmaking has been gummed up by Brexit. There has been a feeling, in Whitehall, that the word “treason” is old-fashioned and distasteful. Yet, in the absence of an applicable law, we are unable to demand legitimate punishment of actions that cut at the very integrity of our society.
The argument that Ms Begum is a victim follows a pattern of assumption that women are less threatening than men — and less responsible for their actions. Many counter-terrorism experts believe this is naive. Last summer, an all-female terror cell was convicted of plotting knife attacks on the public. The leader was a 22-year-old, Rizlaine Boular, who had roped in her mother. Her younger sister, 17, was already awaiting trial for plotting a separate gun and grenade attack at the British Museum. To call these women “brainwashed” does not fully capture their actions.
It is very likely that Ms Begum will make contact with a British consulate. While the government may seek a temporary exclusion order, they will eventually have to give her a passport. When she returns, her baby — she says she is now nine months pregnant — is likely to be removed by social services, leaving her with perhaps even less incentive to assimilate. Whether she wishes it or not, she will be a magnet for extremist Islamist organisations. Whether she is jailed for a short period, or not at all, she will need to be under surveillance for years — distracting slender resources from other subjects. And she will have to be protected by police from extremist organisations of the opposite persuasion. The bill will be considerable.
There is no doubt that Ms Begum has suffered terribly. But the real victims are those who have been butchered by the grotesque evil that is Isis. That evil will rise again and we must urgently put in place stronger laws against those who aid it.