What Should the UK and US Do with ISIS Brides Who Want to Repatriate?
As the Syrian War nears an end, the question of repatriation of United Kingdom and United States’ citizens becomes more critical.
Earlier this month, I wrote about the case of Shamima Begum, the 19-year old British national, who, when she was no more than a child (15), decided to cross into Turkey and then to Syria to join ISIS, in the hope she would share in the fanatical religious ambition of Wahhabism, that is, to see a caliphate all nations would have to bow to, and if not, face the blade of their executioners.
Begum, like hundreds, if not thousands, of militants, is waiting for her country of origin, the United Kingdom, to decide whether to allow her to come home and face the music. While many will argue that each country should bear its share of responsibility, the reality of the matter has untold ramifications. One does not simply return a militant home to be prosecuted at home, especially if we bear in mind how very ill-prepared our respective legal systems are for Islamic radicalism.
To argue compassion and our moral ethos without recognizing the danger that lies in a rushed decision to appease public opinion would not only be folly but also an act of treason. And while our governments arguably wielded terrorism as a convenient tactical weapon to leverage their own positions and geopolitical plans in the Greater Middle East, such knowledge should not distract from the risks a mass repatriation would mean.
Our desire to hold our state officials accountable for allowing the threat of Islamic radicalism, aka Wahhabism, to metastasize in the pursuit of regime change in the Middle East needs to be looked at separately from the issue of ISIS repatriation. No one said politics was simple…
We must draw a strong and definite distinction between how we came to be in this situation and how we need to go about solving our present legal entanglements while preserving national security.
There Is No One-size-Fits-All Solution for Repatriation
Let’s be clear from the onset of this argument: No solution can exclude our obligations to the victims of terrorism, whether at home or abroad. The greatest injustice would be to abandon Syria and Iraq to the ravages of terrorism, knowing our governments played a part in deliberately containing ISIS to maintain both military and political leverage in the region.
That being said, our guilt cannot translate into an act of martyrdom by allowing our nationals who espoused Wahhabism, and with it the dream of the caliphate, by allowing them to breach our society. Our foremost duty is to defeat terrorism by eradicating its message on an ideological level and equip the legal system to deal with these returnees.
If we consider for example that the U.K. has no legal means to prosecute Shamima Begum should she, in fact, return home (there are no legal provisions set in place to prosecute individuals from joining a terrorist group abroad), it is evident how very vulnerable Britain currently stands before the issue of repatriation, notwithstanding the financial resources needed to handle the crisis.
At least 1,000 foreign nationals, including at least 14 British citizens, suspected of being ISIS members are held in prisons and camps in north Syria, whom the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured during the past three years. To that number, we need to add 500 battle-hardened fighters who are believed to be defending the remains of the caliphate, the majority of whom are foreign nationals ideologically committed to the caliphate, and therefore represent the gravest threat still.
Ultimately, those men and women will need to face some kind of trial, and the country will need to discuss and provide for their return. Now, to those numbers, we need to add those individuals who hold links to ISIS by way of family affiliation, mainly women and children. According to the Syrian authorities, there are 1,500 people.
Those Wishing to Repatriate Must Know Actions Have Consequences
Speaking to the press in February, Ben Wallace, Britain’s Security Minister, stressed he would not put officials’ lives at risk to rescue U.K. citizens who joined the militants, saying “actions have consequences.” His stance did little to take away from the growing controversy revolving around the fate of returning foreign fighters, not least those who may have been non-combatants like Shamima Begum.
With so many ranging opinions it is difficult to imagine how we will ever come to terms with the issue of Islamic radicalization now that it rhymes with terrorism, and more to the point, the promotion of wanton terrorism.
Max Hill, formerly the U.K.’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, is of the mind we should rehabilitate rather than prosecute British citizens who were coerced to join ISIS on the basis that naivete sits at the heart of their radicalization.
Playing it nice won’t benefit anyone, least of all those we are trying to protect from terrorism. Maybe more to the point, compassion won’t address the issue of radicalization in that it does nothing to prevent or even criminalize indoctrination in the first place.
Our first instinct may be to keep ISIS militants and/or sympathizers away from our borders. Clearly, this is not a solution, but it may be a good place to start. Maybe there is truth in wishing to isolate such a threat.
Shamima Begum should not be allowed to come home, at least not under the current structure, especially when we have no real means to protect those lives that were shattered by terrorists in the first place. The Manchester bombing comes to my mind and the many lives that were lost to those ideologues Shamima and Co. side with.
If terrorism is not a new ill, ISIS’s brand of terrorism is and the international nature of its message and its gravitational pull demands that we meet its challenges globally, by harnessing our international resources and existing international institutions, that and clearly identifying those powers in the business of manufacturing terrorism, mainly Saudi Arabia.
In her 2013 article Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism for the New Statesman America, Karen Armstrong makes a compelling case against the kingdom. She writes: “… although IS is certainly an Islamic movement, it is neither typical nor mired in the distant past, because its roots are in Wahhabism, a form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia that developed only in the 18th century. In July 2013 the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism, and yet the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that ‘the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way.’”
America Needs to Make a Decision Too
If U.S. President Donald Trump is adamant ISIS members or associates can’t come home, it is unlikely the U.S. will escape the situation by denying its share of responsibility.
Faced with the same issue the U.K. is contending with, the United States has denied one of its own nationals, Hoda Muthana, by arguing legal technicalities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, “Ms. Hoda Muthana is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States. She does not have any legal basis, no valid U.S. passport, no right to a passport nor any visa to travel to the United States,” read a statement issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week.
The young woman’s lawyer, Hassan Shibly, is disputing the government’s claim on the basis of her being born in the United States months after her father, a Yemeni diplomat ended his mandate, thus lifting all restrictions on her access to a U.S. citizenship. This back and forth may appeal to public opinion in that it gives us a sense of control and some degree of vindication, but it does little to find a solution.
So what now? This dilemma is not going away, and the affected governments must find a solution and fairly quickly.