The high profile case of Shamima Begum, in which she was challenging the ruling to strip her of British citizenship, has been dismissed by a UK judge. The 15-year-old schoolgirl made the decision to join the terror organisation Islamic State (IS) and in 2015, along with two friends the young London girl travelled to Turkey without any of their families knowledge, before being smuggled across the border into Syria and on to IS controlled territory.
Ms Begum’s legal team had presented strong arguments that she was a minor who had been groomed, radicalised, and trafficked. They put forward the case that the then home secretary Sajid Javid’s judgment, made in 2019, was “unlawful” and “disproportionate”and as a consequence, it should be overturned and she should be permitted to return home.
Mr Justice Jay, presiding, revealed the complexity of the case had caused the panel of three at the semi-secret court hearing, “great concern and difficulty.” They accepted that there was indeed “credible” suspicion that there could be trafficking involved, but after studying national security advice, they had to conclude that Ms Begum remained a genuine threat to the UK.
Her legal team said the case was “nowhere near over” and the decision will be challenged, but in the meantime the now 23-year-old, who had three children – all of whom died – after marrying a fighter within the terror group, will remain barred from returning to the UK and leaving her detained as an “IS supporter” in an insecure detention camp, in northern Syria.
Seduced by the ideology of IS
Ms Begum was born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi heritage. She lived and went to school in Bethnal Green, East London, which she said, was a “challenging background to grow up in”, never really feeling accepted by society. Along with her friends: 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana and 15-year-old Amira Abase, she was influenced by a determined and effective IS propaganda machine, which persuaded all three of them that Islamic utopia was awaiting them at the IS capital, Raqqa; although Ms Begum would say later that she only ever saw one propaganda video.
They undertook careful preparation to run away, doing their own internet research, including travel costs and learning bits of Turkish language which they were advised they would require before they crossed over the border, in to IS-controlled Syria. This would align with explicit instructions they were receiving from the terror group’s members who they had been put in touch with. She said they they tried to pack light for the journey, although probably showing her teenage years, she admitted she took with her “about 30 mint Aero bars.”
She described herself at that time as weak, secluded, and almost ghost-like; and said her family would never in a million years have thought her capable of doing something “so crazy”. Once in Turkey she explained that the schoolgirls had to wait to be picked up from a bus station, waiting around for hours, before a man named Mohammed Raheek, later reported to be connected to Canadian intelligence, smuggled them over the border in to Syria.
She reflected to being “relieved” to make it out of the UK and said at that time, her expectation was to never return, although she did admit to being sorry at not saying proper goodbyes to her family. In a later statement by her mother, Asma Begum said that her world “fell apart” when her youngest daughter left and that she still thinks about her “every hour of every day”. She added: “Her school blazer still hangs on the door in the front room, just as it was when she left.”
Married off but left with weapons provider
Once in Syria, she was quickly married off to a Dutch IS recruit named Yago Reidijk, who Ms Begum said demanded obedience. This was part of the terror groups agenda for their female recruits. However, less than two weeks after the marriage, Reidijk was jailed on suspicion of being a spy and she was left under the supervision of an Egyptian man, who Ms Begum still to this day, claims not to know the name of.
This reluctance to divulge his details seems to be more a case of fear of incrimination and retribution, as it appears the man in question is Abu Qomra, who apparently was high up in the chain of command, very much involved in providing weapons for the terror organisation.
Friend died in air strike
Seven months after being locked up, Reidijk was released and the couple re-established their relationship. Ms Begum fell pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, followed 11 months later by a son. By now the coalition of forces were closing in and the constant pounding of air strikes was taking its toll. In one raid, a building that Ms Sultana was staying in took a direct hit and her friend was killed. The whereabouts of her other friend Ms Abase remains unknown.
Food was in short supply and her young boy died, followed soon after by her daughter, whilst Ms Begum was pregnant again.
End of caliphate but loss of third child
The brutal IS “caliphate” was eventually defeated in 2019, and her husband arrested and imprisoned, forcing her to flee with other women and children into detention camps in the north of Syria.
She gave birth to another son there, but he died of pneumonia at just a month old. She later said she had been pregnant twice more, but had lost the other two in the early stages. She has been in the dusty, depressing camp, alongside other women and children associated with IS, ever since.
Contempt towards terror group’s atrocities
When tracked down by a UK journalist at the detention camp in 2019, Ms Begum seemed convinced she would be allowed home, but when asked questions about the terror organisation and some of the appalling atrocities they had carried out, such as at the Paris nightspots, Brussels airport and metro stations, and on on her “home” city’s London Bridge, she was totally dismissive.
She even claimed that the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing – in which 22 people were killed, some of them children – was similar to military strikes on IS strongholds and called the terror attack “retaliation”. She openly spoke of seeing the heads of westerners “in bins” shortly after their be-heading, and “not really thinking too much about it”.
Speechless on hearing of removal of citizenship
She was then visibly shocked when she was handed a letter from the home secretary, Sajid Javid, which told of the removal of her citizenship, giving the reason of her continuing to pose a threat to national security. It was pointed out to Ms Begum that the feeling was that she had fled from IS territory for her own safety, and not for the purpose of “disengagement from the group”.
Mr Javid has said repeatedly that some details known to him have to stay confidential for security reasons, but if anybody of sound mind knew what he knew, then they too would make the same decision to remove the individuals citizenship.
Definition of citizenship
Basically, citizenship is a legal status. Using the UK as an example, a person has the legal right to live in the country, as well as access to services such as welfare, education and healthcare, and they have the right to vote, upon reaching the legal age to do so. It is also someone’s identity, forming part of their sense of self and belonging.
The government has the power to remove someone’s UK citizenship “for the public good” if an individual had obtained citizenship through fraud, or if that person’s actions could harm UK interests, and they could claim citizenship elsewhere. Mr Javid’s argument was that Ms Begum had part Bangladeshi nationality, so should pursue her citizenship claim in that country, although apparently they do not want her either.
Not wanted in Bangladesh either
In a tribunal in February 2020, it was ruled that the removal of Ms Begum’s citizenship was lawful because she was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent”, so removing her British nationality would not make her stateless. Bangladesh however have repeatedly stated that she will not be allowed into their country. Then in February 2021, the Supreme Court came to the decision that she would not be allowed back into the UK to appeal against the decision.
Security have no sympathy or willingness for compassion
MI5 said that Ms Begum although only 15-years-old, had joined IS with her “eyes wide open”, and irrespective of any possibility of any radicalisation or manipulation at a vulnerable age, the fact remained that however unfortunate it might be, she is now a genuine risk to the country.
They made the point that she travelled to Syria with the purpose of aligning herself with IS, and has been “desensitised to violence” during her four years exposure to extremism in IS territory.
Distrust amongst general public
Leading up to the final ruling, former children’s minister Tim Loughton said that initial public sympathy for her had been largely replaced by anger, with many suspecting that the former east London girl was simply “putting on an act.” He added that he believed there was a general feeling of “we owe her nothing; she got herself into this mess and frankly it is down to her to work out how she is going to get out of it.”
Ms Begum believes public anger not at her but at organisation
Ms Begum said prior to the hearing that she now accepts that she joined a terror group, and understands the public anger towards her, but insisted that she is of no risk to anyone’s safety, instead claiming: “I am not this person that they think I am.” She asserted that she is “not a bad person” and said that she actually believes the public anger is not actually directed at her, but rather it is towards IS, and placed the blame on media coverage of her situation.
She said: “What was there to obsess over, we went to IS that was it, it was over and done with, what more is there to say?” She refuted suggestions that she assisted in the preparation of suicide vests, or had been to weapons training camp, despite witnesses placing her there.
She did concede that she feels shame now and said that she would regret joining the Islamic State group for the rest of her life, calling it the worst thing of 21st century.
Shades of grey but “correct” decision made
The case was heard at a Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which has similar standing to the High Court, and can hear national security evidence in secret if necessary. The judge, Mr Justice Jay, did conclude that there were arguable breaches of duty on the part of various state bodies in permitting Ms Begum to leave the country as she did, and manage to cross the border from Turkey into Syria.
He also made the point that there could be some merit in the argument that those “advising the secretary of state see this as a black and white issue, when many would say that there are shades of grey in there.” However, despite those concerns, he said that even if it was a case of Ms Begum being trafficked, that “did not trump the home secretary’s legal duty to make a national security decision to strip her of her British nationality,” and found that he had acted correctly and within his powers.
In a statement immediately after the “final” ruling, Ms Begum’s lawyers Gareth Pierce and Daniel Furner said “every possible avenue to challenge this decision will be urgently pursued” calling on the current home secretary, Suella Braverman, to look once more at the case in light of the commission’s comments.
They said the decision removes protections for British child trafficking victims in cases where national security is involved; but more importantly leaves their client “in unlawful, arbitrary and indefinite detention without trial in a Syrian camp.”
Former home secretary pleased with outcome
A spokesperson for the Home Office reiterated that the government’s priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK, adding that: “We will robustly defend any decision made in doing so.” Mr Javid also welcomed the ruling, commenting that “Ministers must have the power to prevent anyone entering our country who is assessed to pose a threat to it.”
Campaigners still pushing
However, human rights groups and campaigners were quick to seize the opportunity to get involved, criticising the ruling and the government’s stance, and insisting that Ms Begum was a child exploitation victim.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “The home secretary should not be in the business of exiling British citizens.”
It seems this “final ruling” might not actually be the end of this matter.