The writer is a former local government councilor and special adviser and author of ‘My Hair is Pink Under This Veil’.
The grainy CCTV footage of 15-year-old Shamima Begum and her friends at an Istanbul bus station en route to join Isis in Syria will forever be etched in my memory. At the time, in 2015, I was an independent councilor in Tower Hamlets, where they lived, and served in government administration. One of the girls reminded me of my own young daughter. Their departure haunted me: who had radicalized them in the face of their parents, teachers, police and local authorities?
Begum is currently in a legal battle to restore her British citizenship, after being assessed by MI5 as a national security threat. But the apparent ease with which the girls traveled still raises important safeguard questions: The treatment of Begum, now 23 and imprisoned in Al-Roj camp in northern Syria, shows how easily a potential victim of trafficking can be criminalized.
The UK is not alone in grappling with the question of how to deal with those with alleged links to the Isis regime. France has refused to repatriate suspected foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria, instead leaving it to Baghdad to prosecute. Germany initiates its own criminal prosecution and attempts to de-radicalise and reintegrate returnees. Turkey launched a forced repatriation program three years ago for foreign jihadists who clog its prisons, after its interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, protested that his country was “not a hotel” for the IS detainees.
The difficulty in establishing criminal intent is that people are products of the environment to which they are exposed. In Begum’s case, this included the doctrine of Isis rhetoric and extremist ideologies. She claimed in an interview last year that the only crime she committed was being stupid enough to join Isis.
Just a month after she and her friends left the UK, four other Bethnal Green Academy students, aged 15 and 16, were placed in court custody on the orders of a judge who feared that “ children “do not” take steps to leave the jurisdiction and travel to a conflict zone. This court order withdrew their passports, preventing them from traveling abroad.
This approach stands in stark contrast to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearing taking place this week in London. Security services argued Begum knew what she was doing when she joined Isis aged 15 – still a dependent and a child in the eyes of the law.
Unfortunately, a police intervention to investigate Begum and her friends Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase before their trip failed completely. The girls received letters asking for parental consent for interviews with law enforcement, but never delivered them to their parents. The Metropolitan Police later apologized to the families but, partly due to their negligence, the fate of the girls was sealed. Kadiza was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Syria. Amira is also presumed dead.
The same year the girls left England, I was an independent candidate for mayor of Tower Hamlets. I called for a public inquiry into how the schoolgirls became radicalized and also called for a serious review of the case, a motion that was never even debated.
Begum’s lawyer, Samantha Knights KC, said the police had an obligation to help her return to the UK if she was a victim of human trafficking. “At its heart, this case concerns a 15-year-old British child who was persuaded, influenced and affected along with her friends by a determined and effective Islamic State propaganda machine,” she told the court this morning. week. Earlier this year it was reported that Scotland Yard discovered that a smuggler working for Canadian intelligence was tasked with helping Begum and his friends into Syria.
Permanently stripping Begum of his citizenship, as the UK government has sought to do, will do nothing to protect the public or young people at risk of being radicalised.
A historical case review could reveal why she and her friends made the trip to Syria and help prevent other vulnerable young people from following the same route. In Denmark, the prevention of radicalization involves “multi-agency” collaboration between social services, schools, healthcare providers, police and intelligence services.
Parents in Tower Hamlets have told me they fear the person(s) responsible for Begum’s grooming may still be there. If the government wants to protect young people from extremism, it must start with Bethnal Green – and how we failed in our duty of care.