The IS wives’ return; the case of Shamima Begum

Born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi origin, Shamima Begum left the UK four years ago at the age of fifteen to join ISIL in Syria. She was recently found, while pregnant, in a Syrian refugee camp by Anthony Loyd, The Times journalist. Her desire to return to the UK in combination with her remotely remorseful attitude has created a big debate and made multiple headlines as to whether she should be accepted back in the UK. UK’s view was clear; the Home Office ordered she be deprived of her British citizenship.

The debate

While UK officials’ view is clear, with security minister Ben Wallace insisting that “actions have consequences”, this perception is not unanimously adopted. Apart from her family, who states that she should not be abandoned, there are also those who would consider her young age as a factor susceptible of indulgence and sympathy, factor which could also mean vulnerability in acts of manipulation at first place. The same cycles also suggest that the level and nature of her contribution in regards with the IS agenda should definitely be taken under consideration; in respect to that, it is highlighted that one’s participation is hard to be assessed, especially if the person adopts a non-combatant role within the group. In any case, the decision of the Home Office is “extreme”, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbin stated, and Begum “has right to return” to UK. What experts advise is that she should be put in trial in UK, since it should be up to the UK courts to determine what punishment she should receive for joining a terrorist organization. Directly after Shamima’s three-week old son allegedly died of pneumonia in the Syrian refugee camp they were residing, UK government faced increased criticism, as the state failed to safeguard a “true innocent”. Others, however, seem to unconditionally support Britain’s policy. They think Begum is playing the “woman” card, and that if it was a man in her position, no such controversy would take place. Doubts have been expressed in respect with the effectiveness of a potential penal procedure, as it was revealed that only one in 10 of all returned jihadists in the UK were prosecuted. According to a 2017 European Commission report, “It is also clear that women play an active role in disseminating Daesh propaganda”. The Free Yezidi Foundation, representing the, probably, most affected group by ISIS brutality, shared a video on Twitter, where amongst others was mentioned that “ISIS wives were worse than men”, thus there is no place for sympathizing those women, and there is a demand for actual investigation. The founder, Pari Ibrahim, has highlighted that “Shamima would continue to be part of ISIS her whole life if they could manage to maintain territory”, “women are not remorseful, and they do not believe they were wrong. If ISIS had not lost on the battlefield, the ISIS practice of buying, selling, and raping women would never have stopped. If you saw a human head in a garbage bin, slave markets, and the genocide of a people, would you stay with the ISIS caliphate and only leave once they lost the war? It is clear that since the caliphate is not there anymore, she needs a new place.”

The legality of UK decision

Apart from a government’s policy and the public opinion, implications may arise in respect with the legality behind UK’s move. Article 15 par.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has a right to a nationality, and in par. 2 is stated that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”. Under domestic British law, the deprivation of one’s British citizenship is legally possible only when the person is a holder of dual or multiple citizenship. Until now, that was the case for the Home Office; “In total May has stripped 33 individuals of British nationality on these grounds since becoming Home Secretary in 2010. All of the individuals were dual nationals.” Shamima’s case, however, is different. Although the British act was partially based on the prospect that Shamima is a dual citizen of Bangladesh, since her mother is of Bangladeshi heritage, Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s minister of state for foreign affairs, has denied that Shamima is a Bangladeshi citizen, thus there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh. If this claim is found valid, there will be profound ground for the UK’s decision to be challenged.


The topic has, not surprisingly, attracted attention, not only because Shamima Begum has some additional characteristics- as a woman, mother and until recently as a minor- but also because the “what about” of IS returnees is increasingly becoming a hot issue western countries have to deal with, as ISIS loses its power. On 22/03, Mustafa Bali, the head of SDF Press Office in northern Syria, announced via Twitter the total territorial defeat of ISIS. That means that ISIS western fighters, whose number exceeded the 4000 back in 2016, may consider returning back to their home countries. The western countries’ approach shall depend not only on their legal obligations, but also on the policy they wish to adopt in terms of dealing with radicalization. If their intentions are oriented towards a genuine limitation of recruits and resources of terrorist groups, then the idea of accepting back their fighters and prosecute them instead of leaving them wandering does not seem that bad. ISIS final defeat is not assured yet; in Iraq, where the victory against the group was declared back in 2017, the jihadist group has already “substantially evolved into a covert network where it prioritizes local operations. It is in a phase of transition, adaptation and consolidation. It is organizing cells at the provincial level, replicating the key leadership functions.” It seems that this group may rehabilitate and make its appearance again, either with a “face” we have seen before or with a new one. In that case, the IS’s ex fighters and supporters, who will remain “unwanted” by their western homes –even without citizenship, as in Begum’s casemight be the first to be recruited again, probably also driven by revenge instincts, willing to commit to and support the group that provides them with “shield”. Instead, those people shall be brought in justice and face the consequences of their acts, and at the same time their availability to future recruiters shall be limited.

Alexandra- Athanasia Metsiou


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