THE saga of Shamina Begum, the London, England, schoolgirl who left the UK in 2015 to join Islamic State in Syria but who now wants to come home as she is nine months pregnant, has been dominating the headlines around the world and rightly so. For what that situation does is to bring to fore once again, in dramatic fashion, the dilemma faced by many countries of how to treat with their citizens who went to fight in Iraq and Syria and now wish to come back.
Trinidad and Tobago is not exempt from this dilemma. As is estimated at least 130 Trinidadians left for Syria and Iraq, including about 70 men who planned to fight and die. They were joined by dozens of children and women, the latter including both willing and unwilling companions. While many of those men are presumed to have died on the battlefield, we need to have a policy on how we would treat with the rest as well as a policy on how to deal with the women and children.
This is by no means a new issue. As far back as 2016 I wrote an article in this column headlined “When the jihadists return home” in which I warned that “Several recent developments, both here at home and abroad, have made it imperative that we focus our minds on this question as to how we shall deal with ISIS fighters and other jihadists who soon will be returning to this country.”
Unfortunately, between then and now nothing has been done by the Government to address this issue and now the moment of decision is at hand. We must acknowledge that the issue is a complex and difficult one and there is little consistency in the approaches to this problem utilised by other countries.
In November 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2178 which focused on how states should deal with the issue. The Resolution presents a holistic approach to the problem and therefore stresses to not only focus on military and intelligence solutions, but incorporate preventative and rehabilitative measures as well.
In practice governments have adopted a wide range of policies and measures in order to deal with the issue of returning foreign fighters. Some countries focus, for example, on prevention, law enforcement while some seek rehabilitation and reintegration. Most countries however have no definite policy and have tried to avoid the issue by doing nothing. But as the last ISIS enclave in Syria comes under siege avoidance may no longer be an option.
The complexity of the issue is not to be understated. In the first place there are the fighters themselves. The problem here is clear. As was recently stated by Alex Younger, head of MI6 in the UK, “Isis remains a potent threat despite the imminent loss of the last enclaves of its caliphate, and the terrorist group will continue to attempt vicious attacks in Britain and elsewhere in the West.” Mr Younger went on to say that “returning Isis members could be very dangerous.”
For us here in Trinidad the danger is clear. As I wrote in the same article referenced above, “The prospect of all our criminal elements being joined by, organised and led by persons coming back from battle zones in Syria, Iraq and Libya, with expertise in urban warfare, should in itself strike terror in our hearts when we consider the inability of the state to deal with the criminals as they are today.”
But we cannot simply refuse to let them come back home. There is no question of revoking their citizenship. We may wish to let them face punishment in Iraq and Syria but at some point in time we are going the have to come to terms with the fact that they may return and then we will have to determine how to treat with them.
As far as the women are concerned the difficulty stems from the ambiguity as to whether those who travelled qualify as “foreign terrorist fighters’’ as per UN Security Council Resolution 2178 or the Anti-Terrorist Act 2018. The fact is that some of them may have been compelled to travel while others may have been firm supporters of ISIS lending support through non-violent means, while others may have participated in horrific acts. The difficulty of making a determination on this issue is well exemplified by the Shamina Begum case.
Finally, there are the children. While it is easy to determine that all children were in fact coerced into travelling to ISIS territories that does not automatically mean that, as of now, they are not active ISIS supporters. The recent capture, in Syria, of a 16-year-old boy from this country fighting for ISIS is a case in point. The boy, Su-lay Su, was taken by his mother from this country to ISIS territory when he was 12.
The inherent complexity of the issue is only exacerbated by the lack of information and hard statistical data. The fact is we really do not know who and how many left, who and how many are still alive, who and how many have already returned. But we cannot keep burying our heads in the sand any longer and pretend that there is not a clear and present danger crying out for a policy determination.