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Terrorism Offences & Revoking Citizenship: The Case of Shamima Begum

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

By Guy Fiennes, Broderick McDonald

Oxford Disinformation & Extremism Lab

ISIS Shamima Begum UK Citizenship Syria

Photo Credit: The Guardian (2023)

Earlier this year, Shamima Begum failed in her latest appeal to overturn the 2019 revocation of her British citizenship. By continuing to revoke her citizenship, the UK government is extending an embarrassing moral failure and pursuing a policy which is counterproductive in the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL).

Shamima Begum was born and raised in the UK until the age of fifteen when she left to join the Islamic State in Syria. Once in Syria, Begum married a Dutch ISIL fighter and aligned with the terror group, allegedly assisting in recruitment and with the group’s ‘morality police’. Her actions and the hurt she caused in both Syria and the UK cannot be overlooked or justified. She should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law — but the process should happen in her home country, which has responsibility for its citizens wherever they may be.

The decision to uphold the revoking of Begum’s British citizenship this week is nothing more than a shameful shirking of the UK’s duty to deal with its citizens. Without British citizenship, Begum will remain in a detention camp in Syria and never be brought back to the UK to face legal punishment here. Instead of prosecuting, punishing, and rehabilitating one of our own citizens, the UK government has offloaded its responsibilities to the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, which are forced to provide secure detention facilities for the hundreds of foreigners who joined ISIL. Despite being a close partner in the global coalition to counter ISIL, the SDF has few resources to securely detain and process former ISIL members such as Begum.

Offloading our responsibilities in this way is not only morally wrong — it risks making the UK government an international outlier and causes embarrassment on the global stage. The UK is the only G20 nation that revokes citizenship on a broad scale and remains one of the slowest Western countries to repatriate its citizens from Syria. The Begum affair is part of a broader trend of embarrassing responsibility-offloading in the British response to ISIL member nationals – including the offloading of Oxford-born and raised teenager Jack Letts onto a ‘disappointed’ Canada. These decisions are not only morally wrong — they make us an unreliable security partner and undermine our standing on the world stage at a sensitive time.

However, the risks of continuing to revoke Begum’s citizenship are not only moral or reputational — they also jeopardize our security and the global fight against IS. Without citizenship and repatriation for prosecution here in the UK, Begum will be held in limbo at an SDF detention camp in northeast Syria. In encrypted ISIL group chats that, extremists routinely rank prison breaks as a top priority and a way to rebuild the group’s capabilities. These are not idle threats. IS regularly organizes attacks on prisons in northeast Syria to free its former members, including a devastating attack on the SDF administered al-Sina prison in northeast Syria just last year. Given the ongoing conflict in northern Syria and the limited resources of the SDF to secure its detainees, it is reckless of the UK to leave high-risk detainees in this situation. While opinions differ on Shamima Begum’s role as a perpetrator or victim, there is no question that leaving foreign IS members in Syria will undermine our security and provided ISIL with opportunities to free them.

While this week’s decision ignored the reality that Shamima Begum was born and raised in the UK, we have both a moral and a practical responsibility to repatriate her and prosecute her in the UK, despite all the challenges involved. Continuing to revoke her citizenship is tantamount to sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring our responsibilities — both to our allies and the global coalition against ISIL. The decision to uphold the revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship will have long-lasting consequences for Britain but it will not solve the fundamental issue of what to do with British citizens who joined ISIL and remain in Syria. It may however spark a national discussion which is long overdue.

Broderick McDonald is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Oxford.

Guy Fiennes is an OSINT Analyst and a Resettlement Support Worker at Asylum Welcome.

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