February 27, 2023
IntelBrief: Shamima Begum and the Difficulty of Balancing Security, Humanitarian Concerns, and Accountability
Shamima Begum, a British-born woman who left the United Kingdom at 15 to join ISIS in Syria, lost an appeal last week challenging the removal of her British citizenship. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a UK court handling immigration cases linked to national security, upheld the decision of then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid to revoke Begum’s UK citizenship in 2019 because her presence was not “conducive to the public good.” The ruling was given despite “credible suspicion” that Begum had been trafficked to Syria for sexual exploitation as a child, and “arguable breaches of duty” by state bodies who failed to protect her from radicalization and stop her from leaving the UK. Nonetheless, in the judgment of the security services, reaffirmed last week, Shamima Begum’s presence in the United Kingdom would pose a greater threat to British citizens and interests. An anonymous MI5 officer, known only as Witness E, told SIAC the service had made a national security assessment regarding Begum and that it “recognises that victims can very much be a threat, if indeed someone is a victim of trafficking.”
Shamima Begum’s case has garnered widespread attention, with claims that racism and misogyny have greatly affected her public perception and shaped the case’s ultimate outcome. This recent SIAC ruling will render Shamima Begum effectively stateless, leaving her in legal limbo in al-Roj camp in northeast Syria. While the UK government has argued that deprivation of British citizenship does not leave her stateless due to her eligibility for Bangladeshi nationality through her parents, Bangladesh has already confirmed that she will not be granted citizenship there. The court rulings have sparked concerns that a two-tiered system of citizenship may be emerging in the UK, putting children of immigrants and others entitled to dual nationality at greater risk of deprivation. Many have voiced concerns that the public and media reaction to her case was shaped by her gender and ethnicity. However, the decision in her case stands out due to the assessment of a continued security risk, which was accepted by both the UK Supreme Court and the SIAC. Indeed, similar action has not been taken across the board for all UK nationals in the camps. One other case in 2019, that of former dual-national Jack Letts, also resulted in the deprivation of citizenship though he was able to retain Canadian citizenship.
The rejection of Shamima Begum’s appeal by the SIAC means that she will remain in al-Roj camp, where she has been since ISIS lost territorial control over its so-called caliphate. Her third child, named Jarrah, died from pneumonia in the camp and her two other children reportedly died prior to her arrival. Although her case has been hotly contested, many have pointed out that her children should have been entitled to the protections of the British state. “The death of Shamima Begum’s baby Jarrah is a tragedy. Born into these circumstances he is an innocent child who sadly lost his life due to poor decisions on all sides,” said terrorism scholar Gina Vale. Moreover, she noted, approximately 4,640 minors from 80 countries departed their home countries to join ISIS, many with their families and in circumstances over which they had no control. While Begum’s case serves to highlight the plight of women and children in the camps, it also highlights the even more precarious fates of adult men and young boys that many states have so far refused to repatriate. In early 2022, an ISIS-led prison break in Hasakah, Syria, highlighted the uncertain fate of nearly 3,500 inmates. UNICEF reported that approximately 850 children, some as young as 12 years old, were being held in the north wing of the prison and with much of the focus by states on women and girls, there has been a genuine neglect of what should be done with the boys in these prisons.
With no feasible option for return in sight, Shamima Begum’s case also highlights the difficulties of balancing security, humanitarian concerns, and accountability. The recent ruling renders it unlikely she will be held accountable in a British court for any terrorism offenses or war crimes she may have committed or facilitated during her time in Syria. Although reports that she was trafficked, and of the involvement of a Canadian intelligence official in the process, have had bearing on the discourse about her accountability, her initial interviews with Western media reflected little remorse for her choices or their impacts on ISIS’ many victims – including women, children, and especially the Yezidi community. Recently, Yezidi victims of ISIS crimes have expressed firm opposition to repatriation measures announced by Canada. Begum has reaffirmed her awareness and understanding of the nature and objectives of the terrorist group she sought to join. However, her youth and the trafficking claims might have influenced a final assessment of her responsibilities, without a trial these questions will remain unanswered and risk shaping the outcomes of cases regarding other returnees. In this and other cases it appears that states’ reluctance to repatriate is shaped by an assessment that they have insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute, but sufficient intelligence to indicate an ongoing security risk. This means states would need to devote significant resources to mitigate the risks, including allocations for monitoring and social services.
The camps in northeast Syria are not a sustainable long-term solution for those suspected of ISIS-affiliation. Reports suggest they remain hubs of radicalization, particularly among women who entered the camps for safety after the fall of ISIS rather than because of a change of heart or ideology, and there are reports of women perpetuating the strict codes of conduct imposed by ISIS. It also remains unclear if or how the Syrian Defense Forces can continue to administer and secure the camps, particularly if there is an uptick in ISIS recruitment and violence, a reduction of support from international actors, or attacks on Kurdish communities by regional actors. Moreover, the plight of those left in the camps will continue to inspire extremist propaganda, fueling grievances that may drive support for terrorist groups in the region and abroad. Shamima Begum’s case is a poignant reminder that cautious government decisions intended to reduce risk in the near term can also risk creating powerful narratives for extremist groups.