What will the UK do about Shamima Begum, the schoolgirl who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State? The Times’ stunning scoop this morning about the 19-year old’s plea to be allowed home from the Syrian refugee camp prompted Security Minister Ben Wallace to tell the Today programme that ‘actions have consequences’ and that she could face prosecution.
Some argue that as a teenager who left when she was just 15, she has been indoctrinated and needs rehabilitation, not punishment. Wallace may well agree with that, but it’s not something he’s likely to say in a broadcast interview, given it is still important for the government to send the message that you cannot support a proscribed organisation or potentially commit crimes in its name without fearing that the law will catch up with you. In reality, though, there are many people who have already returned to the UK from Syria and Iraq who have not faced prosecution, largely because there isn’t enough evidence to convict them for anything. The government has recently introduced new measures to make it illegal for people to travel to terror zones controlled by Islamic State, but these have been somewhat watered down by caveats about visiting sick relatives and so on.
There will be many more who will try to return now that the United States has announced it is pulling out of Syria. The looming withdrawal of American troops means several hundred detainees held by Kurdish forces in northern Syria could start finding their way back home. There are fears some could escape, but the Kurds’ have also been asking the detainees’ own countries to take them back.
As I wrote last summer when covering the case of a woman who had been detained in Turkey on suspicion of terrorism before returning to the UK, it is privately accepted among those responsible for working out what to do with those who return that they simply cannot monitor all of them, and that to do so would be a waste of time as many of them pose no threat at all to British society. It may well be that the British government doesn’t go to any effort to retrieve Shamima Begum, but equally it might not be the case that she finds herself in a British prison if she does make it back to this country.