Daesh-linked teen’s wish to return stirs debate in Britain, officials vow to block it

FRENCH PRESS AGENCY - AFP
LONDON
Published 15.02.2019 17:35
In this file photo taken on Feb. 22, 2015, Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London. (AFP Photo)
In this file photo taken on Feb. 22, 2015, Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London. (AFP Photo)

The fate of a pregnant London schoolgirl who wants to return to Britain after joining the Daesh group in Syria divided the nation on Friday as reports emerged of more U.K. women fleeing the war zone.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid told The Times that people like Shamima Begum "were full of hate for our country."

"My message is clear - if you have supported terrorist organizations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return," Javid said in the interview published Friday.

But former MI6 foreign intelligence service chief Richard Barrett argued on Begum's behalf in an opinion piece for the left-leaning The Guardian newspaper.

"Despite the justifiable concern, governments have a responsibility to address the problems created by their captured nationals and also to look more closely at why they made the choices they did," Barrett wrote.

"Like it or not, these individuals were products of our society, and it would make sense to take a good, hard look at why they turned their backs on it in such dramatic fashion."

'Terrible price of childish decisions'

CAGE, a campaign group for Muslim detainees, also said Begum should be allowed to return. Moazzam Begg, the group's outreach director and a former Guantanamo detainee, said he had met "young teens who paid the terrible price of childish decisions".

Begum should be "counselled in the right direction to learn and acknowledge just how much the organization she joined deviated from the basic principles of Islam and brought misery to the world," he said.

The story of Begum and two of her friends, who flew on their own to Turkey and crossed into Syria in 2015, stunned Britain and created global headlines. Another girl, Sharmeena Begum, from the same school in east London's Bethnal Green area had run away the year before.

Their decisions created bitter resentment and disbelief in a country that has been a frequent target of bloody terror strikes linked to Daesh.

The Times newspaper managed to find an unrepentant Begum -- now 19 and about to give birth for the third time after seeing her first two children die -- at the Al Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria.

"I just could not endure anymore," she told the paper.

"I fled the caliphate. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain."

Begum married a Dutch fighter soon after arriving in Syria.

"Mostly it was normal life in Raqqa, every now and then bombing and stuff," she told The Times.

"But when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn't faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam.

"I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance."

Begum fled with her husband, but he surrendered to a group of Syrian fighters allied to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

"The caliphate is over," she said, adding that "there was so much oppression and corruption that I don't think they deserved victory."

She acknowledged her notoriety but said: "I'll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child."

The British government does not have the power to keep Begum out because she still has a U.K. passport and has not been convicted of a crime. But authorities could prosecute her or issue a special security notice that would see her detained at a U.K. airport.

'Had no choice'

Begum's brother-in-law Mohammed Rahman and other relatives of the surviving teens pleaded for mercy.

"I can understand why people in this country are angry and don't want her back," Rahman told The Times.

"But she was only 15 when she went to Syria. We are appealing for compassion and understanding on her behalf."

Begum fled together with two friends: Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. Sultana has since been reported killed. Begum said Abase stayed in a village where Daesh fighters are making a final stand against U.S.-backed fighters.

Abase's father Hussen asked for forgiveness for the teens, saying that the girls had been young when they ran away, at an age when they could be "easily tricked."

"They should be allowed to learn from their mistakes," he told The Daily Telegraph.

"They are no threat to us."

"Twisted minds can be straightened by teamwork of the government, with the parent," he told Sky News in a separate interview.

A lawyer who represented the families of Begum and her two friends four years ago, Tasnime Akunjee, told The Times he was "thankful she's alive."

He noted that when they ran away, "there was an understanding that as long as they had committed no further offense they will not be prosecuted and be seen as victims".

Dozens of UK nationals believed to be in Syria

The Daily Telegraph reported from eastern Syria that seven British women and 15 of their children are believed to have fled Baghouz -- the village where Daesh fighters are making their last stand -- for two refugee camps.

The paper spoke to two British women at the camps who wanted to return. A mother-of-four from London named Nassima Begum -- no relation to Shamima Begum -- said she "had no choice but to follow" her husband's decision to leave.

"Some of the women here believe in [Daesh]. I can promise you I am not one of them," she said.

But another Londoner named Reema Iqbal was more reserved.

"The security services came to speak to me and I was honest, I told them my whole story so now it's up to them to judge," Iqbal said.

The British authorities estimate around 900 Britons traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict, of whom around 300-400 have since returned -- and 40 have been prosecuted. As of last month, around 200 were believed to still be alive and in the region.

Speaking to Sky News, Security Minister Ben Wallace said it was "worrying" that Begum had not expressed regret about going to Syria. He also noted the difficulties faced by many governments of how to deal with those returning from abroad.

"It is a challenge for all of us," he told BBC radio.

"Some of them were groomed... when they were young but are now adults and some of them are hardened fighters.

"We have successfully prosecuted a number of them in the last few years when they have come back and the others should expect the same if they return."

The United States had said it is ready to help countries repatriate Daesh-linked figures detained in Syria but it is up to their home governments to come up with solutions.

Under new anti-terrorism legislation, British nationals spending time in Syria face arrest and up to 10 years in prison on their return. The law toughens previous legislation that required authorities to prove returning nationals had engaged in terrorist activities while abroad.

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