A British teenager who joined Daesh in Syria four years ago is seeking to return to the UK as the international coalition launches its final battle against the group’s last stronghold in Syria.
In an interview with the Times, now 19-year-old Shamima Begum appealed to the UK government to allow her to return for the sake of her unborn child. Her other children – a girl aged a year and nine months and a three-month-old boy – both died in recent months, with her son suffering an unknown illness worsened by malnutrition.
“I was weak,” she told reporters from the Al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria. “I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved. But I was also frightened that the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on. So I fled the caliphate. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”
She and two of her fellow Bethnal Green Academy pupils, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, made headlines in 2015 when they ran away from home, entering Syria via Turkey. Settling in Raqqa, Begum married a Dutch convert after three weeks.
“Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, every now and then bombing and stuff,” she said, “but when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all”.
Begum gave a conflicting account of the so-called caliphate. “There were so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory,” she said, but added: “I don’t regret coming here.”
Begum fled the town of Baghuz two weeks ago; her husband had surrendered himself to US-backed Kurdish militias, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Under international law Britain cannot render Begum stateless, however, following Begum’s statements British Home Secretary Sajid Javid warned he would “not hesitate” in preventing her from returning to the UK.
“My message is clear — if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad I will not hesitate to prevent your return,” Javid said, adding: “If you do manage to return you should be ready to be investigated, and potentially prosecuted.”
However, the solicitor who represented Shamima Begum’s family said she should be allowed to return to Britain and that counter-terrorism officials should consider treating her as a victim.
Lawyer Tasnime Akunjee said: “I am really grateful she is alive. Bernard Hogan-Howe when he was Metropolitan police commissioner said the girls should be treated as victims as long as no evidence emerges that they committed offences. I would hope that is honoured.”
“She has suffered trauma and I hope that she can come back and put this behind her. Anyone who has lost two children will need a lot of help.”
Earlier this year, the US Pentagon announced that the SDF is currently holding nearly 600 foreign fighters from over 40 nationalities in custody, but emphasised that it would not be able to hold them indefinitely. The SDF has since been asking for financial support and for foreign governments to take back fighters to ease their burden.
The UK has so far refused to take back fighters and their families, but international pressure is likely to mount as Daesh forces face defeat in coming weeks.