What led to Shamima Begum's radicalization
This week, despite the defection of several MPs from their parties, the fate of British Daesh “jihadi bride” Shamima Begum has been the most read and shared news story in the UK. Via a remarkable stroke of luck and good old-fashioned journalism, The Times correspondent Anthony Lloyd last week found Begum, one of the “Bethnal Green girls,” in a Syrian refugee camp.
The nation has been gripped and appalled by her story: Married soon after arrival, she has had three children (one born in the last few days), two of whom are dead. One of the friends she traveled with, Kadiza Sultana, was killed in an airstrike.
When the “Bethnal Green girls” traveled to Syria to join Daesh, I was working for a think tank on extremism issues. Our focus was: What is the ideology that holds religious extremist groups together, and what is it that attracts others?
These three girls — Begum, Sultana and Amira Abase — fascinated Western media. Aged 15 and successful at school, they threw it all away to go and join a murderous terror group. They were the phenomenon of “jihadi brides” — they were not going to fight, they were going to live. They were part of the influx that Daesh needed to sustain its claim to a form of statehood.
Of course, this claim also required it to hold territory, and via the concerted effort of an international coalition, that territory has now gone. Many of those who traveled to join Daesh are dead; many others are prisoners or in refugee camps.
Begum wants to return to the UK. Should the UK let her? Home Secretary Sajid Javid made his view on this quite clear by revoking her citizenship (something she is permitted to appeal). The legality of this move is not clear, as she does not hold citizenship elsewhere and was born in the UK.
Who were the influencers around her that created the soil in which Daesh propaganda could grow fruit?
I was reminded this week that Douglas Hurd, a long-serving foreign secretary under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, used to say situations like this are opportunities for statesmen to educate the public. Javid has manifestly failed that test, instead following the political path of least resistance.
His decision has led some to describe the way the UK government deals with citizenship as racist. They claim that a white person who joined a white supremacist terror group would not be treated the same way. I am not convinced that this argument has legs: Daesh as a territorial entity was a terror group like no other, with unique international appeal.
Part of its radicalism was the open rejection of the protections of citizenship, claiming to replace the states that its recruits came from. There is no white supremacist group, or any other kind of terrorist group currently in existence, for which something similar could be said, and Western governments’ approaches to citizenship have been based on that uniqueness.
I do not think that the British government is racist in its treatment of Begum, but I do think it is wrong. Her radicalization was a failure of British policy. The fact that she was able to travel was a failure of British policy.
She was, whether she liked it or not at the time, a British member of Daesh, a group causing untold damage most significantly in Syria and Iraq. To revoke her citizenship now is for Britain to throw its dirty laundry into the neighbor’s garden. She is our responsibility, and should be dealt with in the UK.
The problem is that she does not appear to be repentant. Her flight from the remnants of Daesh territory does not speak of principle but pragmatism. She has shown no remorse about joining the group. The only remorse she has shown is that Daesh was not sufficiently pure.
She abandoned the comfort and opportunity of life in the UK for a lie sold by Daesh propaganda, and soon discovered it to be a lie. Even so, by her own admission to Sky News, she does not regret it. There is a strong element of self-absorption in her account: “I think a lot of people should have sympathy towards me for everything I have been through … It has changed me as a person. It has made me stronger, tougher.”
She clearly still represents a potential danger to UK security. That is an argument for an intensive debriefing for any potential intelligence, close monitoring, bespoke de-radicalization, and perhaps removal of her child into care. It is an argument for examining where a conviction might be secured on the basis of her actions. It is not an argument for saying she should not come home.
Ultimately, however, we are focusing on the wrong issues. What happens to Begum is a security matter. It is wrong, but unsurprising, for it to become an opportunity for slogans. What matters is the question of how she was radicalized, and how to prevent it from happening to others like her.
She claims it was by watching Daesh propaganda that she was drawn to Syria. But radicalization rarely happens in a vacuum. What were her networks? Who were the influencers around her that created the soil in which Daesh propaganda could grow fruit? What can be done to prevent this happening to other young teenagers with bright futures?
Begum has now twice been the cause of a national debate on radicalization. But the debate seems to go around in circles. Government work on countering radicalization, despite the claims of its opponents, is fundamentally about protecting vulnerable people. Those efforts failed in this case. Instead of following the path of least resistance, we need to examine the difficult questions about how we failed to ensure it does not happen again.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby