A former Isis fighter once complained to me that western volunteers who travelled to the so-called Islamic State in northeastern Syria were a burden because they did not speak Arabic, had no military experience, knew little about Islam and had often come because they were bored or unhappy at home.
He said that their main advantage from the point of view of Isis was propagandistic, since by making the difficult journey to the caliphate, they showed that its ideology had world wide appeal.
Shamima Begum, whom the Supreme Court decided today should not be allowed back into Britain to challenge the removal of her British citizenship, has already more than fulfilled Isis’s expectations. She did so in 2015 when, at the age of 15, she travelled to Syria to join Isis, her melodramatic journey, on which she was accompanied by two school friends from Bethnal Green Academy, provoking a furore in the British media that was repeated when she re-emerged in the Kurdish-controlled Roj refugee camp in Syria in 2019.
The British government would have been well-advised to leave the whole issue alone. Anything it did could only give the Begum story legs and enhance her value to Isis and al-Qaeda-type jihadis as a propaganda icon. Ministers should have done absolutely nothing, allowing her to return to Britain. She should then have been charged with aiding terrorism, particularly if she poses “a real and current threat to national security” as she does according to the Home Office lawyers.
But government ministers do not like to be seen to be doing nothing when they have an opportunity to sound tough and in control. The home secretary of the day, Sajid Javid, stripped Begum of her British citizenship, and thereby ensured her an ocean of publicity. I do not mean that she and Isis planned it that way, but this outcome was inevitable and foreseeable.
In the eyes of many the government had converted her from a supporter of a movement of mass murderers into a pathetic and pitiable victim hounded by unfeeling authorities. The government was pursuing her, moreover, through an act of questionable legality that was bound to be contested in the courts. Nor is the issue going to go away because of today’s decision since it places her in a legal limbo, saying that her appeal against her deprivation of British nationality should be postponed until she is in a position to make it without compromising public safety.
Some will argue that she was a young teenager when she first went to Syria and cannot be held entirely responsible for her actions. She may even have been “groomed” into joining Isis – although this assumes that a 15-year-old cannot take decisions on their own and is then absolved of responsibility when they turn out to be mistaken.
Begum and her schoolgirl friends had flown from Gatwick to Istanbul on 17 February 2015 and travelled on to Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in Syria. Atrocities committed by Isis had by then been leading television newscasts and newspaper front pages for eight months. She and her friends must have known about the murder, rape and enslavement of the Yazidis by Isis. They might even have heard of the Camp Speicher massacre in Iraq the previous June when Isis, advancing south after capturing Mosul, had murdered at least 1,095 unarmed Shia Muslim air force cadets that they had taken prisoner.
I was in northern Iraq three months before Begum arrived in Raqqa and I interviewed a Christian woman called Fida Boutros Matti who had been captured by Isis and taken to Mosul with her three children to be forcibly converted to Islam. She told me how they were taken to a house in Mosul and put in one room which was next to another where 30 Yazidi girls between the ages of 10 and 18 were being repeatedly raped by their guards. Mrs Matti told me that “the Yazidi girls were so young that I worried about Nevin (her daughter) and told the guards that she is eight years old though she is really 10”.
Such savagery was typical of the regime that Begum supported – and no degree of naivety or stupidity can excuse this.
The lawyers for the Home Office said that Begun, now aged 21, has undergone radicalisation and “desensitisation to violence”. Her lawyers contended that she never fought, trained or took part in any terrorist activity during her four years in the so-called caliphate. The Supreme Court has now decided, nevertheless, that she is such a security threat that she should not be allowed to return to the UK to pursue her appeal against loss of her British citizenship.
But this approach misses the more important political point that the government has trapped itself into providing Sunni fundamentalist supporters, who are far more numerous than Isis fanatics, with a sympathetic martyr. On a small scale, the authorities’ approach to the Begum case – reinforced by today’s Supreme Court decision – repeats the same mistakes made by governments since 9/11. Again and again, they have used terrorism as an excuse to expand their own arbitrary power and to brush aside fairness and justice on the grounds of public safety.
In doing so, whatever they claim to have been doing, they demonstrably turned themselves into recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda, whose greatest success was not in destroying the Twin Towers in New York, but in provoking the US government into misusing the danger to the public to sanction torture, imprisonment without trial at Guantanamo and, above all, the invasion of Iraq.
Instead of enhancing public security, as governments purport to do, the US and its allies did the precise opposite, counter-productively facilitating the growth of al-Qaeda from an organisation with a few hundred adherents into a mass movement and later enabling Isis to create a caliphate the size of Great Britain.
Yet much the same arguments about the primacy of public safety over all other considerations was used by the Supreme Court today in rejecting Begum’s appeal. Its president, Justice Robert Reed, admitted that the deprivation of her British citizenship would have a profound effect on Begum as her alternative nationality [Bangladeshi] is one with which she has little real connection. Nevertheless, he said that “the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”.
Reed said crucially that it is up to the government and not the courts to decide who and what really poses a security risk. This may sound reasonable. but one should keep in mind that it was just such self-serving and counter-productive governmental decisions that created the conditions for the rise of Isis and the caliphate to which Begum and her friends made their fatal journey in 2015.