How not to solve a problem like Shamima 25/02/19

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 25 February 2019

Some problems are perfectly predictable.

As soon as The Times published Anthony Loyd’s scoop interview with the “Jihadi bride from Bethnal Green” last week — her plea to return to the UK from a Syrian refugee camp opened a legal minefield.

Common sense, not clairvoyance, is all that was needed for UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid to anticipate that the Bangladesh government was not suddenly going to welcome Shamima Begum. Natural justice and plain facts dictate she is UK’s responsibility. It was in London and online, not Bangladesh, where she and the two friends who journeyed with her to Syria, were radicalized.

Despite this being obvious, the predictable was not prevented. By rushing to strip her off British citizenship, Sajid Javid picked populist posturing and a quick boost in poll ratings over the sober judgment on security matters demanded by his high office.

Given the befuddled state of politics in Britain lately, I cannot pretend to be surprised whenever yet another politician fails to think a course of action through properly. But Javid’s move risks inflaming the oxygen of publicity for an IS sympathizer and providing a platform for all types of extremists to jump upon, just so he can look tough in the tabloids.

From a situation where his authority to prioritize security investigations would be legally unimpeachable, and Shamima’s travel to the UK could temporarily be delayed anyway, the politician in charge of fighting terror has needlessly sparked litigation he might lose.

Of course, the 19-year-old does herself no favours by appearing to be an unrepentant supporter of the death cult she ran to join four years ago. Amid expressions of regret about her current predicament, when asked about the 2017 Manchester Arena suicide bombing which murdered 22 people, mainly young girls, at an Arianna Grande concert, and injured hundreds, her first instinct was to try and rationalize the atrocity.

Her lack of empathy does not, however, alter the legal validity of her wish to return to the UK. Javid’s arbitrary use of an inherently controversial power predictably raised more questions than answers.

Did Javid’s advisers make any attempt to ask if this person has ever had a Bangladeshi passport? Or even visited Bangladesh? Or did the Home Secretary simply not care? Might things be different if Shamima was of a different racial origin? Was advice overruled? The list goes on, and the answers are moot because we are now told she has never been to Bangladesh, and Javid is sure he got his poll boost.

But the most important questions are largely lost amid the sound and fury of internet “debate.”

Private Eye’s latest cover semi-seriously predicts her inevitable return to the UK by suggesting unlikely television reality shows on which Shamima could appear in the future. Given her young age, a letter or two of complaint is probably predictable about this cover, but its assumption that UK law won’t stop her returning, in the long run, seems plausible.

If this happens, it is up to professionals, not politicians, to determine the level of threat she presents and the justice system to determine what crimes, trial, and punishment her actions warrant.

On the face of it, her gauche interviews do not suggest a charismatic propagandist or an experienced participant in violence.

But her banal description of herself as a “housewife” is disturbing given the background that, within a month of her arrival in IS territory in 2015, she was married underage to a Dutch jihadist named Yago Riedijk. With this in mind, her lost pregnancies, and the misogynistic violence of IS fighters, the word may disguise all manners of horror.

The most important question Shamima can answer now, apart from intelligence about her husband, is to help psychologists and police officers understand how and why she got indoctrinated in the first place.

Did family influence or a desire to rebel against her parents play a part in her choices?

Was romance or adventure offered as an inducement to leave her normal life, and if so, did such motives attract her and if they did then why did she not think to pursue them more normally and safely in London?

How deeply did she research/interact with recruiters before leaving for Syria? Stripping this person of citizenship will not help answer these questions.

In 2015, not long after Shamima Begum first achieved notoriety, this paper published a piece I wrote called “Inbetweeners v ISIS” reflecting, amongst other things, on why individuals from comfortable Western nations might be drawn to violent jihad (August 11, 2015).

A year or so later, I was amused by what on reflection is a worrying anecdote. A reliable person informed me that an innocent (white English Christian pacifist) Londoner was investigated by their employer, because a software alert at work was triggered by the word “ISIS” in my article, when they chose to read it during their lunch break.

Whilst the software cannot be blamed for a dim HR person assuming the reader was a security risk and (I was told) wasting hours on questions which a five-minute read of the article (it says IS are bad), would have deemed unnecessary, the story does highlight, in another way, why good intelligence is needed to effectively fight terrorism.

Javid is misleading the public by promoting the idea that blocking this person from returning to the UK is more prudent than questioning her and following rule of law. His lack of curiosity is not going to help those tasked with combating indoctrination and propaganda.

To quote from part of that article lamenting the futility of oversimplifying issues, I noted “the UK press prefers to focus on the three teenage girls from British-Bangladeshi families in London who travelled to Syria to become ‘Jihadi brides,’ rather than on the three British-Bangladeshi women who were recently elected as UK MPs in the same city.”

Little has changed.