Home Office officials declared “public sentiment is overwhelmingly hostile” to Shamima Begum and argued removing her British citizenship would not affect community relations when they advised Sajid Javid to act against her last year.
The then home secretary was formally advised that “the general feeling” was that the young woman, who travelled from east London to live under Isis in Syria aged 15, had “made her decision and must now live with it”.
Limited evidence was cited to back up the assertion, beyond stating that an interview she had given in the Times in February 2019, a few days before Javid’s decision to withdraw her citizenship, had aroused “significant national media attention and public concern”.
Although Begum could have been considered a victim because she travelled out as “a minor”, she was deemed to be a threat to national security because she had remained in Isis territory after the age of 18. MI5 concluded she had “aligned” with the terror group.
The stark comments form a key part of the UK national security case against Begum, revealed in documents released as part of a two-day supreme court hearing over whether Begum, who is now 21, should be allowed to return to the UK.
But the arguments were contested by Begum’s lawyers. They said she had been unable to put her side of the story, because she could not fully instruct her legal team from the detention camp in Syria where she was held.
Lord Pannick QC, representing Begum, said she would be at risk of physical harm in the Syrian detention camp if shespoke by mobile phone to British lawyers challenging her deprivation of UK citizenship.
Addressing the supreme court, Pannick said that the Kurdish authorities in al-Roj camp “do not permit detainees to use their phones”. Those caught, he added, were “placed in isolation, separated from their children and beaten”.
Although journalists have been allowed into the camp, lawyers have been denied access. Begum’s lawyer had only been able to make limited contact with her and was “unable to communicate on detailed factual responses”, Pannick added.
Begum needed to be able to participate in the hearing properly by returning to the UK if it was to be conducted fairly, Pannick concluded. “The requirements of procedural fairness cannot be overridden by national security without express statutory provision,” he added.
The lawyer also picked out a sentence from the Home Office summary of the case against her, which highlighted the difficulties Begum would face in challenging the decision to deprive her of her citizenship. It said: “Should Begum become aware of the deprivation decision whilst in al-Hawl [another camp where she was previously held] it is difficult to see how she might effectively exercise her appeal right from that location.”
Begum came to the attention of the Home Office following the Times interview, which features heavily in the official case against her. In it she said that the sight of a severed head in a bin “didn’t faze me at all” because it belonged to a captured fighter, “an enemy of Islam”.
But the court heard that the decision to remove her citizenship did not take into account another interview given to the Daily Mail, where she expressed remorse, where she said she was afraid of radical Isis women in the Syrian detention camps who might threaten her.
The court was told that of the 900 Britons who were estimated to have travelled to Syria to take part in the conflict, about 20% had been killed and 40% had returned home. Those who had returned so far were deemed to pose a low security risk.
A 17-page annex to the Home Office summary, prepared by MI5, contains a full assessment of “the threat to national security from UK linked individuals” who had travelled to Isis-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq.
It concludes that anybody who left the UK to join Isis and remained with it in March 2018 – the date the document was last revised – was a national security threat because they had been “radicalised and exposed” to Isis “extremism and violence”.
MI5 warned, in its advice to the home secretary, that returnees could do anything from engage in “directed attack planning” through to posing “a latent threat to the UK”. Women who travelled to live under Isis were considered a security risk because “they lend legitimacy to the group” while children were “likely to have been radicalised”.
During the hearing Pannick argued that Begum’s case should be decided on its merits. “What degree of threat, if any, Ms Begum will pose on her return [needs to be investigated] in the circumstances of her case. Sir James [Eadie QC for the Home Office] is asking the court to assume the worst when the purpose of the appeal is to determine the facts.”
Judgment in the case is reserved.