On Valentine’s Day, the news broke throughout the British media that Times reporter Anthony Lloyd had found one of the Bethnal Green girls who had left their families in 2015 to join ISIS. These three girls, Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, at the age of 15 had stolen family jewellery and used the funds to go forge new lives in the Islamic State. Flying from Gatwick to Istanbul, and then making their way into Syria, they were presumed to have been radicalised by footage circulated by ISIS online.
For a while, little was heard of any of them – they were presumed to have been married off to other foreign fighters and living under Sharia Law in Raqqa. In 2016, Kadiza Sultana’s family announced publicly that they believed her to have been killed in a Russian airstrike. Apart from these snippets of information, little was known until a week ago when Shamima Begum resurfaced in a refugee camp in Syria. At 9 months pregnant, she gave an interview which shed light on her past, but also threw up serious questions with regards to her future.
The pictures which Lloyd took of Begum display a woman, now aged 19, who is clothed in full Islamic dress. She has a face which betrays very little emotion – hardly surprising for someone who has lost two children and has seen so much. When questioned about her arrival in the Islamic State, she says that, ‘we were in a house full of women for about a week. They realised who we were… I was there for only three weeks because after that I got married’. She describes seeing a decapitated head, just lying in a bin in Raqqa, as easily as one would describe their day.
As she keeps speaking, the one thing which becomes obvious to any listener is that here is a woman who is worried about her child. When she talks about the loss of her previous two children, her voice rises and becomes more hysterical, describing herself as being overprotective about her child and wanting to come home, back to the UK. However, there is little evidence of much remorse for the actions of ISIS or condemnation of its ideology. In fact, she defends what she sees as the good sides of it.
This interview has been the catalyst for a great deal of discussion back in Britain. Several more interviews have been conducted with Begum, by Sky News and the BBC. In each she has reiterated that she wishes to return to the UK, but expresses a great deal of certainty in the expectation that she ought to return, saying, ‘I think a lot of people should have, like, sympathy towards me for everything I’ve been through. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left and I just was hoping that for the sake of me and my child they could let me come back. Because I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.’ The most recent was conducted after the birth of her child, a boy she has named Jerah, and she has expressed concern that staying in the camp as she fears he could die due to the low quality of life.
The response from the British Government has been swift. On the 19th of February, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid sent a letter the Begum’s family announcing that she has been stripped of her citizenship. Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, a person can be deprived of their citizenship if the home secretary is satisfied it would be ‘conducive to the public good’ and they would not become stateless as a result. He made a statement to MPs earlier this week saying that 100 dual-national fighters had already been stripped of their British citizenship
It was presumed that Begum is eligible to hold Bangladeshi nationality through her mother. However, this has proved to be controversial, as right now, she does not and so could be considered stateless. The lawyer for the Begum family put out a statement saying, ‘It seems to be a bizarre decision and I’m not entirely sure how that will stand up legally’, stressing that she has never been to Bangladesh. Ken Clarke, former Home Secretary and Tory grandee, went on the Today Programme, warning that turning people away could be a ‘great boost to jihadism’ and that ‘hundreds of foreign jihadis stuck in camps in northern Syria’ could be further radicalised.