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Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Runaway Islamic State bride Shamima Begum, wearing a black jilbab and hijab, holds up a placard. On it is written “Let me come back. I have tomatoes.” The meme is some light relief in an otherwise grim tale.
Begum’s journey from Bethnal Green Academy to a camp in Syria began in 2015 when she was 15. Many women will cringe as they remember ill-advised episodes in their teenage years – a perm, a tattoo, a crush on a boy band – but few joined a terrorist organisation.
I’m Not a Monster” is a BBC podcast series on Begum. With the BBC’s documentary “The Shamima Begum Story” broadcast earlier this month, a contract with Netflix cannot be far behind. Re-inventing Shamima, perhaps?
Unfortunately for this country, far more serious questions are raised than how the photogenic Islamic State groupie managed to get a manicure and hair straighteners in the al-Roj detention camp in the northeast Syrian desert.
Often forgotten are Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, the two schoolfriends with whom Begum travelled to Raqqa via Istanbul. The three were following in the footsteps of fellow student Sharmeena Begum, who had swapped double geography for jihad in December 2014.
Shamima supporters are currently claiming she was the pawn of groomers and traffickers while a minor. Conveniently for the girls’ families, friends and wider circle, many are choosing to see the Bethnal Green quartet as not just lacking agency, but as victims of shadowy operatives.
Last week, the Special Immigration Appeal Commission rejected Begum’s appeal against the loss her British citizenship, revoked by Sajid Javid, the then-Home Secretary, in February 2019.
This week, Jonathan Hall KC, the Independent Reviewer on Terrorism Legislation, argued that Begum should return home, along with other British women who joined IS. There might be quite a few of them.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation points out that at its zenith, Islamic State controlled an area larger than the UK. Some 11 million people were under their fanatical jurisdiction, among them were 52,808 foreign volunteers, including 6,902 women and more than 6,000 Western Europeans.
“Western countries, surveying the terrorism landscape, reached a position on the Islamic State travellers: stop them from returning,” stated Mr Hall on Monday, outlining government thinking around 2015. Back then, IS death cultists were busy beheading infidels, burning alive a Jordanian pilot, and enforcing their barbarism across 100,000 square kilometres of Iraq and Syria. “The prospect of dozens of battle-hardened individuals returning to the UK en masse would have tested police and security services to their limits.”
So far, an estimated 400 UK-linked individuals have returned to Britain from the failed IS caliphate, which thankfully ended with the fall of Baghuz in March 2019. The Independent Reviewer says “… It is notable that no successful attack on the UK has come from a returner.” He adds that, statistically, women are far less likely to commit acts of terrorism than men.
With national attention focused on Begum and her IS handmaid’s tale, few are asking why some young British-born Muslims, educated in British schools, are so apparently alienated and unhappy that they seek answers from radical Islamism.
Islamist extremists remain a threat to national security. As Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, set out last month, they account for 80 per cent of the counter-terrorism police network’s live investigations; the “predominant threat” they represent 75 per cent of MI5’s caseload.
First launched in 2006 and amended by successive British governments, the Prevent strategy has sought to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. In his recent Review, Lord Shawcross stresses that Islam as a faith is not the same as Islamism as an ideology: on a global scale over the past two decades it is Muslims who have been the principal victims of Islamist extremists, citing groups such as IS, al-Qaeda or Boko Haram.
For almost two decades, however, all of us in Britain have been aware of home-grown terrorism, carried out in Britain. By entrenching division, it has had a corrosive effect on society.
Since the Independent Review was commissioned in 2019, six terrorist attacks have taken place, including at Fishmongers’ Hall, in Streatham, and in Reading. Most of the perpetrators were British-born and educated. Of the five suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 and at Manchester Arena in 2017, four were born in Britain: all were at school in this country.
A plank of counter-terrorism, Prevent works at society’s grassroots. The strategy, however, needs a re-set, not least because it is not doing enough to identify and dissuade Islamism’s fellow travellers. The Home Secretary described these Islamist sympathisers as “people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.”
With her time as Prime Minister coinciding with the Troubles and the threat from Irish Republican terrorists, Margaret Thatcher insisted that Northern Ireland was as British as her Finchley constituency. Today, if Birmingham Hodge Hill (62 per cent Muslim) or Bradford West (59 per cent) are not as British as Finchley, why not? If Britain’s Muslims are alienated from Britain, all of us must recognise this.
The teenaged Shamima Begum went from school in Bethnal Green to IS hausfrau and possible hisbah (morality police) enforcer. She also gave birth to three children – “cubs of the caliphate” – who died. Her contemporaries in Finchley might have got as far as the Reading Festival.
Begum has been deprived of her citizenship – for now. She was, however, born, educated, and radicalised in Britain. Radicalised young people like her, are our problem. Exiling her is a temporary fix but solves nothing.