A pregnant British teenager who fled to Syria as a schoolgirl to live in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL or ISIS) so-called “caliphate” could be prevented from returning to the United Kingdom, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has said.
Javid told the Times: “We must remember that those who left Britain to join Daesh [ISIL] were full of hate for our country.
“My message is clear – if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return. If you do manage to return, you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.”
Shamima Begum, now 19, left London for Syria with two of her friends in February 2015 after ISIL captured vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
After arriving in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIL at the time, the three girls were placed in a home for “single women” before Begum was married to Dutch fighter Yago Riedijk, 12 years her senior.
Governments may fear a right-wing backlash against any treatment of ISIL returnees that looks like going soft on terrorism, but a strong society is one that can take the right course whatever the prevailing wind
Speaking from the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-east Syria, heavily pregnant Begum told the Times: “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago.”
After the deaths of her one-year-old daughter and three-month-old son in recent months, Begum said she “fled the caliphate”, while her husband surrendered to a group of Syrian fighters allied to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“I was also frightened that the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on, so I fled the caliphate.
“Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”
‘15-year-old who went badly off the rails’
Begum’s sister, Reenu, has pleaded with the British government to allow her to return, telling ITV News that she needed to be at home, “where she belongs”.
“She’s pregnant and vulnerable, and it’s important we get her out of al-Hawl camp and home as soon as possible.
“We hope the British government will help us bring her home to us where she belongs.”
Richard Barrett, the former director of global counterterrorism at MI6, described Begum as “a 15-year-old who went badly off the rails” and said she should be “given a chance” and allowed to return to the UK.
“Governments may fear a right-wing backlash against any treatment of ISIL returnees that looks like going soft on terrorism, but a strong society is one that can take the right course whatever the prevailing wind,” Barrett told the Guardian newspaper.
“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.
“This can help us find ways to build the social cohesion that we increasingly need in the face of growing nativism and intolerance”.
New ‘anti-terror legislation’
This week, the UK’s parliament passed new “anti-terrorism legislation”, meaning anyone who spent time in Syria would face arrest and up to 10 years in prison.
The new law, which received royal assent on Tuesday, toughens previous legislation that required authorities to prove returning nationals had engaged in “terrorist activities” while abroad.
Javid will now have the power to declare any zone outside Britain a “designated area” in order to “protect members of the public from a risk of terrorism”.
Visiting such zones will now constitute a crime, with exceptions for those with a “reasonable excuse for entering, or remaining in, the designated area”.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) says it has arrested more than 3,200 ISIL fighters in the territory it controls in northeastern Syria, with more than 900 believed to be foreign fighters.
In addition to the hundreds of men, the SDF also says it is holding more than 4,000 family members, including elderly people and young children.
The SDF took full control of Raqqa in October 2017, prompting the ISIL fighters to flee to other parts of Syria and across the border into neighbouring Iraq.
Last week, the US called on the European nations and other countries to repatriate and prosecute their citizens who travelled to Syria to join ISIL.
The campaign against ISIL is currently focussed on Baghuz, a small, remote village in Deir Az Zor province where thousands of civilians are trapped by the armed group.