Ahmed Seif EL-Din
Shamima Begum and other British women who joined Islamic State should be brought home, the government’s independent terrorism watchdog will say.
Jonathan Hall KC, the reviewer of terrorism legislation, will argue that British or formerly British women should be allowed to return from Syria because that is the position taken by key allies including the United States.
He will also highlight concerns about a new generation of extremists being reared under the “cubs of the caliphate” programme in northern Syria.
Begum was 15 when she joined Islamic State in 2015 with two friends from Bethnal Green in east London. She has been in a camp in northern Syria since the caliphate fell.
Her case has provoked fierce debate, with her lawyers arguing that she was trafficked as a minor. Last week she lost her legal challenge against the removal of her citizenship in 2019 by Sajid Javid, then the home secretary. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that the government acted lawfully to protect national security. The decision was welcomed by Suella Braverman, the present home secretary.
Bethany Haines, whose father David, an aid worker, was beheaded by Isis in 2014, told LBC the decision was right because Begum posed “a direct risk to all who are around her” and the UK justice system could not deal with her. The judges concluded that although there was “credible suspicion” that Begum had been trafficked for sexual exploitation, that did not mean she had an “absolute entitlement” to citizenship. Her lawyers have indicated that they will appeal against the ruling.
Begum is one of an estimated 60 British women and children held by the Kurdish authorities in Syria. Many have not had their citizenship removed but have no travel documents and no means of leaving Syria without the British government’s co-operation.
The government is under pressure from allies, including the US, to bring them home. The US has repatriated dozens of Americans and the Biden administration has said the squalid camps in Syria threaten regional stability and western security.
In a speech to King’s College London, Hall will say that the UK’s “strategic distance” policy — removal of citizenship, limited consular assistance and funding of Kurdish detaining authorities — is “at a crossroads”. He will say that the risk posed by Isis has changed and that as repatriations by other European countries have picked up, the UK is “under the spotlight”.
Hall acknowledges the argument by MI5 about the risk that Isis Britons pose but will point out that the Britons in camps in Syria are in limbo and decisions need to be made. The decision point “could come sooner than expected through US and allied pressure, Turkish military activity, court rulings, or natural disasters”.
He will add: “Compared to men, women are less likely to have travelled for the purpose of fighting, are less likely to have played battlefield roles, may well have had less autonomy in being able to leave and now make up the majority of those UK-linked individuals detained. Women with children may also fear child protection measures being taken against them . . . mitigating against further terrorist engagement.”
Hall will say he has “no answer” to the argument that this may be discriminatory, undermine female agency or fail to recognise the roles of female terrorists. However, he will say statistics have shown that men were predominantly involved in terrorism plots.
He will add: “For UK-linked children, the less time spent being incubated as cubs of the caliphate the better.”
The Times understands that many officials are uncomfortable with the refusal to repatriate because it puts Britain out of step with its key allies.
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