Minister rules out rescuing ‘terrorists or former terrorists’ from Syria

By Hayden Smith, Helen William and Ryan Wilkinson, Press Association

The security minister has ruled out launching a rescue mission to Syria after an east London schoolgirl declared that she wanted to return to the UK four years after she joined Islamic State.

Ben Wallace said he would not put British lives at risk to “go and look for terrorists or former terrorists”, adding that “actions have consequences”.

His comments came after Shamima Begum gave an interview from a refugee camp in northern Syria saying she wanted to come home.

She was one of three schoolgirls, along with Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, from Bethnal Green Academy who left the UK in February 2015.

They flew from Gatwick Airport to Turkey and later crossed the border into Syria.

Another girl, Sharmeena Begum, also from Bethnal Green but not related to Shamima, had travelled to Syria two months earlier.

Ms Sultana was reported to have been killed in an air strike in 2016.

Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum before catching a flight to Turkey in 2015 to join Islamic State (Metropolitan Police/PA)

Shamima Begum said she had recently heard second-hand that the other two girls may still be alive.

She told The Times that “I don’t regret coming here”, adding: “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago.”

Now 19, she said she was nine months pregnant with her third child. Her other two children have died.

“In the end, I just could not endure any more,” she said. “I just couldn’t take it.

“Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.”

Shamima Begum (Metropolitan Police/PA)

Ms Begum was married 10 days after arriving in Raqqa in 2015 to a Dutchman who had converted to Islam.

She said: “Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, every now and then bombing and stuff.

“But when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam. I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance.”

The couple left Raqqa in 2017 and two weeks ago they escaped from Baghuz, IS’s last territory in eastern Syria.

Ms Begum’s husband surrendered to a group of Syrian fighters, while she is now one of 39,000 people in a refugee camp in the north of the country.

Mr Wallace said: “The UK advises against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq.

“Everyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences, and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security.”

While refusing to comment on individual cases, he later told the BBC: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state.

“There’s consular services elsewhere in the region and the strong message this Government has given for many years is that actions have consequences.”

Ms Begum’s brother-in-law Mohammed Rehman told Mail Online that the family had spoken to her on the phone.

He said: “It was very emotional. There’s a mixture of elation and sorrow. We are happy that she’s alive but sad that things have come to this.

“She’s lost two children and put us all through a lot of heart ache. She’s also gone through a very difficult time herself.

“Shamima’s mother broke down when she heard her voice. Until the interview with her appeared in the newspaper we didn’t know if she was alive or not. So you can imagine, this has come as a shock to us all.

“At one stage we thought she was dead. There has been no contact with her in almost two years. Shamima’s mum just cried and told her to come home. She promised to make her her favourite food.

“We want her to come back so that she can be re-educated. As a family we can’t understand how her head was turned like this and why she thought going to Syria was a good idea.

“I can understand why people in this country are angry and don’t want her back. What she’s done doesn’t portray Islam in a good light. But she was only 15 when she went to Syria. We are appealing for compassion and understanding on her behalf.”

The former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett that Shamima Begum will have to be accepted back into the UK if she has not become a national of any other country.

The question of how authorities manage the return of UK nationals who travelled to IS territory has been the subject of fierce debate since the group came to prominence.

In 2017, then Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill QC, who is now the most senior prosecutor in England and Wales, suggested allowances could be made for the return of individuals such as the Bethnal Green schoolgirls.

Shamima Begum (Metropolitan Police/PA)

Speaking around a year before his appointment as Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Hill said it was right for security services to leave space for those who travelled out of a sense of naivety, at a young age and who return in a “state of utter disillusionment” to be diverted away from the criminal courts.

Clarifying his comments shortly after, Mr Hill stressed that he had at no time said that returning “foreign fighters” should be “welcomed rather than prosecuted”.

He said: “I indicated that we should allow some space for individuals who do not fit into the categories requiring the legal sanctions I have listed, but who may be very young and naive; by which I mean for example the teenage girls who left a London Academy school in order to travel to Syria via Iraq.

“Even such teenagers would not escape prosecution if there is evidence that they have committed serious criminal offences, but if not, surely we should make an allowance for their return in circumstances where they were simply brainwashed, as immature and vulnerable teenagers.”

The Government estimates that around 900 people “of national security concern” travelled from the UK to engage in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Of these, approximately 20% have been killed while overseas, and around 40% – roughly 360 – have returned to the UK.

Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer who was instructed by the Bethnal Green girls’ families after they ran away, said he was “glad (Ms Begum) is alive and safe”.

He told the Press Association that, at the time of the girls’ disappearance, “the position of the Metropolitan Police was that they should be treated as victims, so long as they hadn’t committed any further offences while they are out there”.

Mr Akunjee said he had spoken to the girls’ families, who had “expressed the position that they want time and space to process what’s happened”.