Shamima should be put on trial in Syria
We should support the Syrian Democratic Forces to bring jihadists to justice.
A dark cloud hangs over the Al Roj camp where Shamima Begum is being held in north-eastern Syria. She is said to be ‘angry and upset’ at the decision of the Supreme Court not to allow her to return to the UK to contest the loss of her citizenship. This bleak picture stands in stark contrast to the feelings of the vast majority of the British public, who will be raising a toast to the Supreme Court and thanking it for putting their interests ahead of an ISIS terrorist.
Ever since Shamima Begum was found in a Syrian Democratic Forces holding camp by Times journalist Anthony Lloyd, the UK has been gripped by the drama surrounding the 21-year-old woman. In a very short amount of time, two competing narratives were formed by the public. Those who see Shamima as the 15-year-old who left Britain in 2015, a victim, trafficked and abused by ISIS, and those who see her as a remorseless and dangerous supporter of the ISIS death cult.
The victim narrative is being pushed in the usual circles on the far left. A motley alliance has emerged online of activists, advocacy groups and politicians who all claim Shamima is a victim not just of ISIS, but also of a racist and reactionary Conservative Party. This is, of course, complete nonsense. The accusation that Shamima is only being treated this way because of racism may gain traction online and receive plenty of ‘likes’. But it doesn’t hold up to the fact that Jack Letts, a white middle-class man from Oxford, was also stripped of his British citizenship for joining ISIS. The UK government’s attitude to terrorists who go abroad to murder and rape has actually been quite consistent.
Shamima Begum and I went to Syria at around the same time. While she joined ISIS, I went as an international volunteer to defend local people from the murderous death cult that she had gone to join. I was a fighter in the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US- and UK-backed force, made up of all the ethnicities and religions persecuted by the fanatics. Between 2014 and 2017, I fought ISIS all across northern and eastern Syria, only leaving once we had liberated Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Caliphate.
I saw with my own eyes what people like Shamima did to Syria and Iraq. Indeed, all of us watched on TV as ISIS annihilated entire communities, shot thousands of people in ditches, burned them in cages and threw gay men from buildings. It is because of what we all felt and saw that the British people must never stray from the ultimate goal of destroying the Islamic State and bringing to justice those who joined it.
As a country we must move on from Shamima Begum and indeed all the fanatics who left the UK to join ISIS. These people are dangerous. They have shown no remorse for their actions, and far from trying to escape from ISIS territory they waited until ISIS was completely destroyed before being captured on the battlefield. Far from being victims, those left in Syria have proven themselves to be the most fanatical and committed members of the Islamic State. If the British government is not willing to bring them back and put them on trial here, another solution is needed.
It was the Syrian Democratic Forces who, alongside the international coalition, destroyed ISIS. They hold around 30 per cent of Syrian territory and, with the backing of the West, their emerging autonomous region is the safest and most progressive part of Syria. The UK government must provide these people with the resources and the diplomatic recognition to put all foreign jihadis on trial and jail them once convicted. It would be an act of monumental stupidity if the British government withdrew Shamima’s citizenship and did nothing more to ensure her continued incarceration in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces are holding around 12,000 Islamic State fighters. These jihadists are being fed, clothed and housed by their victims. This is little more than cruelty to a region blighted by conflict. Britain has a legal and moral obligation to do more.
The security of the British people and the delivery of justice to ISIS victims must be the cornerstones of a new policy on foreign jihadists in Syria. It would be unethical to bring jihadists back to the UK before they have spent their day in court. We shouldn’t deprive Syrians of the healing effect of a judicial process, and the chance to look their tormentors in the eye. That can only happen if the world supports local people and realises that Shamima is already exactly where she needs to be.
Macer Gifford is a human-rights activist and anti-ISIS campaigner. He served for three years in the Kurdish YPG. Follow him on Twitter: @macergifford.
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