A British teenager who joined ISIS in 2015 says she wants to return home.
Shamima Begum, who left the UK with two of her classmates from east London when she was 15, was found in a refugee camp in northern Syria by UK newspaper The Times.
Now 19, and nine months pregnant, Begum told the paper that she “just want(s) to come home to have my child.”
Begum said she had no regrets about coming to Syria, but told the paper that “the caliphate is over.”
“They’re just getting smaller and smaller and there’s so much oppression and corruption going on that I don’t really think they deserve victory,” she said.
Begum said she had two other children who died in infancy from malnutrition and illness.
Two weeks ago, Begum said, she decided to flee from ISIS’ last stand in the front-line village of Baghouz in eastern Syria, citing fears for her unborn child.
“In the end, I just could not endure any more,” she told the Times. “I just couldn’t take it. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”
Begum said her 27-year-old husband, a Dutchman who had fought for ISIS, surrendered to Syrian fighters allied to the US- supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) weeks ago and that she hadn’t seen him since.
Begum told the paper that she was aware of “what everyone at home thinks of me as I have read all that was written about me online.”
“But I just want to come home to have my child. I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child,” she said.
From east London to eastern Syria
In February 2015, Begum left London’s Gatwick Airport with her classmates Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. The young women, all from the Bethnal Green Academy in east London, were to join another classmate who had traveled to Syria months earlier.
When the trio first crossed into Syria, Begum said, they were held in a couple of houses because they were suspected of being spies.
Shortly after, they arrived in Raqqa, where, Begum said, she was placed in a “house for women.” Here, she said, she applied to “marry an English-speaking fighter between 20 and 25 years old.”
Ten days later, she married Dutch national Yago Riedijk, she said.
The other three young women also married a foreign-born ISIS fighter, according to the Times.
Begum described her first years in the then self-described capital of the caliphate, like a “normal life, like the life that they show in the propaganda videos.
“But when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told the Times.
In May 2016, Sultana was reported to have been killed in an airstrike in Raqqa.
In January 2017, Begum and her husband left the city, moving southeast along the Euphrates valley as SDF forces advanced, the Times reported. The couple eventually landed in Baghouz.
Begum told the Times that she left Baghouz two weeks ago as the SDF’s final offensive to oust ISIS loomed. She said she walked along a three-mile-long corridor east of the town, adding that she was “weak” to have left the group as they faced death and “saluted” the women who stayed.
Now in a Syrian refugee camp of 39,000 people in al-Hawl, Begum told the Times that she had recently heard from other women that the other two young Londoners were still alive in Baghouz.
“But with all the bombing, I am not sure whether they have survived,” she said.
A homecoming uncertain
It is not clear how Begum’s wish to return to Britain will be received by the UK Home Office, which has strict laws for citizens wishing to return after traveling to ISIS territory.
Without directly commenting on Begum’s case, UK security minister Ben Wallace said on BBC’s Radio 4’s Today program Thursday that “actions have consequences.”
Wallace said UK nationals choosing to come back to the UK after traveling to ISIS territory should expect to be “prepared to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted for committed terrorist offenses.”
“We recognize that there are children involved in this who had no choice about being out there, but ultimately what we have to do is protect the public.
“People who went out there often as amateurs are now professional terrorists or professional supporters of terrorism, and we have to make sure we mitigate that threat should they come back.” he said.
Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer for the families of the teenagers, told the UK’s Press Association news agency that British authorities should remember the position that the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner took when the girls first went missing.
“The position of the Metropolitan Police was that they should be treated as victims, so long as they hadn’t committed any further offenses while they are out there,” Akunjee said.
Mubaraz Ahmed, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute, says that Begum’s “self-confession paints the picture of a young woman that has been desensitized to barbaric violence, considered life under a tyrannical theocracy to be normal, and appears to continue to hold on to some notion of a ‘deserved victory’ against the enemies of Islam.”
“For Begum, it was not wrong to join the caliphate, but rather that the caliphate she willfully joined started to get things wrong,” he said.
Ahmed argues that it is important for the British authorities to “resist impulsive decision making,” saying that the UK should not only take responsibility in investigating and prosecuting its nationals under the law, but that it needs to provide proper support structures to facilitate rehabilitation.
“With any foreign fighter, as a starting point, an admission of guilt for supporting or belonging to a proscribed terrorist organization should allow authorities to immediately begin the process of ensuring that ISIS returnees receive the justice they deserve,” he said.
“Justice need not be exclusively about punitive action,” Ahmed said.
A new Pentagon report says the US government is encouraging other countries to accelerate efforts to repatriate foreign ISIS fighters to their home countries for prosecution. Progress has been difficult, though, due to political concerns and the challenges of gathering legal evidence to support prosecutions once they have returned.
But many European countries have been reluctant to accept ISIS members. In fact, only a handful of countries, such as Russia, Indonesia, Lebanon and Sudan, have allowed ISIS followers to return. Previously, captured ISIS members have been processed under Iraqi law, but the EU does not trust Syria’s judicial system to do the same.