Today’s decision by the Supreme Court to prevent Shamima Begum from returning to the UK and mounting a legal challenge to the removal of her citizenship sends a strong message to other hopeful Isis returnees. But it might not be a victory in every sense.
Begum’s return to the UK was described by the Home Office as a move that would create ‘significant national security risks’. The government argued that it would expose the British public to an ‘increased risk of terrorism’. They’re right to do so. We know that just one in ten Isis returnees have faced prosecution. The challenges faced by authorities investigating offences committed in overseas conflict zones, such as Syria, could have rendered any realistic prospect of prosecution unlikely.
But while the government seeks to stop Begum returning to protect the British public and safeguard national security, it only achieves this in a narrow sense. In the short-term, the Supreme Court’s decision is good news. But could a move intended to distance the UK from the threat ultimately prove to be counter-productive?
Taking what could be considered by some as an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to the Islamist terrorist threat of Isis is not a credible long-term strategy. Leaving hundreds of British Isis fighters, women and children in Syrian camps and prisons may unwittingly contribute to the resourcing of a future Isis resurgence. To date, it is estimated only around half of the 850 Britons who travelled to join Isis have returned. Some of those still in Syria and Iraq will have undoubtedly been killed in action; others remain either in detention in Syrian camps or prisons, or steadfast on the battlefield.
Isis is not the organisation it once was, but it remains a threat. Despite significant territorial and financial losses, it retains at least one hundred million dollars in cash across the Middle East and Central Asia. Such financial clout leaves Isis in a strong position to regroup. It can then take advantage of regional instability and the global distraction of Covid-19 to rebuild. The idea that an Isis resurgence of this kind would result in a purely localised (or at least distant) threat is at best naïve. At worst, it is woefully misinformed.
A resurgent Isis not only possesses a significantly increased international attack capability, but also an enhanced profile and brand. This growth would dramatically increase its ability to recruit new members and propagandise at scale ‒ inspiring attacks by British citizens at home ‒ the likes of which have become all too familiar.
In the Begum case, there are no simple solutions. Decision-making on issues of significant national security importance is no enviable task. Threats are often unpredictable; decisions are filled with nuance and shades of grey.
However, when weighing up the potential short-term threats and long-term consequences, the priority must always be the immediate safeguarding of British national security. By such measures, the decision by the Supreme Court to prevent Shamima Begum’s return to the UK to challenge the removal of her citizenship is undoubtedly a victory for national security, if only for now.
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