By Nikita Malik
There is no doubt that those who went to join Islamic State were attracted by a deeply regressive and dangerous Islamist ideology. Yet, the decision to strip fighters of their British citizenship (including the recent decision by Home Secretary Sajid Javid to do this to returnee hopeful Shamima Begum) has unleashed a chorus of condemnation from almost every progressive commentator in the land.
Javid’s decision makes many – including me – uncomfortable. For all intents and purposes, Shamima Begum is British – Bethnal Green was the only home that she had ever known – and we must be cautious about playing fast and loose with laws on citizenship stripping. Moreover, preventing Begum’s entry to the UK (even if it is legally possible) is unlikely to solve the problem of what to do with her. Bangladesh, the proposed option, is disowning her. It is quite possible that, by virtue of the Home Secretary’s decision, she will continue to reside in a refugee camp, where she can give unfiltered media interviews that promote her distorted views.
But the most worrying scenario is that if, as her family hopes, she does manage to come here, the UK’s hodgepodge of terror laws could well see her serve either a nominal prison sentence, or evade justice altogether. There ought to have been options – good ones – to manage Begum in Britain, and yet every serious effort to build counter-terrorist laws fit to deal with the challenges of returning Islamic State members has been thwarted by the very people now outraged that the UK is not taking more responsibility.
Diane Abbott of the Labour party, for example, has likened Shamima Begum to a “grooming victim”. Jeremy Corbyn has also said she must be allowed to return and that she may need “support”. Such figures slam the Government for refusing to let Begum return, and yet this sort of soft approach to terrorists is one of the reasons why it would be so dangerous to let her come here.
Our treason laws provide a case in point. It is hard to comprehend of something more definable as treason than joining a terrorist organisation that swore to destroy the UK. However, the remit set out in the 700-year-old Act that defines treason fails to include Islamic State.
There have been a series of efforts to change this. A 2008 Law Commission report, a 2014 Henry Jackson Society report, and a 2018 Policy Exchange report all called for changes to modernise its scope. Each attempt was received with echoes of condemnation from critics who called such proposals callous.
Given that the justice system is not set up to deal properly with somebody like Begum, if she were to return to British soil the Home Secretary would have to look at the long term options for keeping tabs on her. Here the prognosis is equally bleak.
The “control orders” of yesteryear, which placed tough restrictions on the activities of suspected terrorists, are no more, having succumbed to a campaign against them. In their place are the comparatively toothless Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, or TPIMs, which are rarely used and extremely expensive. The Home Secretary has been faced with an impossible choice: keep Shamima Begum out or risk her walking the streets of Britain. The dilemma should never have been this stark. It ought to have been possible to punish Begum in accordance with her crimes, or at the very least to subject her to the conditions necessary to secure the public’s safety.
Yet these measures – and more – have been obstructed, opposed, or obviated by a coordinated campaign against them. The best response to crime is a punishment proportionate to the offence. Hopefully this experience will pave the way to a stronger toolkit of legal mechanisms in future.