They made me do it: how to reconcile ‘brainwashing’ with terrorist group membership

Of all the cases of ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ that has cropped up of late, and there have been many, many such instances, the story of a British ‘schoolgirl’ is one of the most interesting. Shamima Begum left the UK in 2015 as part of the ‘Bethnal Green’ trio of females who joined Islamic State (IS). The girls became (in)famous as the embodiment of a ?new? phenomenon of what the New York Times called ‘jihadist girl-power subculture’ (female participation in terrorist groups is anything but new: go back to the 19th century anarchists and the Tamil Tigers in the 1980s to see lots of examples of women terrorists – check out Jessica Davies’ book on this topic).

Now Ms. Begum wants to come home. She claims that she has already lost two children born in the so-called Caliphate to malnutrition and is nine months pregnant with a third which she does not want to lose to the same fate. The reaction in the media to this story has been mixed. The left-leaning Guardian in the UK wrote that she was obviously ‘brainwashed’ and must be returned and rehabilitated. Other news reports noted that she has ‘no regrets’: in fact she apparently said “when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all.” So which version of now 19-year old is true?

It is hard to tell. That she was recruited is probably correct but is recruitment necessarily a form of brainwashing , whatever that term means? Did she make a conscious choice to leave England for IS? Did she grow to support and believe in the terrorist group? Did she partake in terrorist activity or crimes against humanity? All very good questions and ones that will be very hard to resolve given everything I have said before (gathering evidence in a war zone, intelligence vs. evidence, etc.).

What then should we do with a young woman who apparently will “do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child”? In my mind, several things:

  • if she makes it home – the UK, like Canada, has said it will not put consular officials at risk to extricate IS members – she should be charged with leaving to join a terrorist group. That charge should be easy to support.
  • a further investigation should be carried out to see what else, if anything, she did while in Syria that constitute crimes
  • if not arrested she should be watched for an indefinite period to determine her allegiance to IS and her attempts to radicalise others.
  • the UK should seriously consider placing her child in foster care. Jihadis do not make ideal parents and the state has a duty to protect the most vulnerable from hateful, violent ideologies (the baby, not Ms. Begum).

None of this is easy and it is likely that many of my recommendations will not come to pass. But at the same time we have to stop seeing these cases as nothing more than ‘phases’ that young people go through. Terrorism is serious shit and needs to be treated seriously. We don’t dismiss rapists and child molesters because they ‘made bad choices’ or ‘had a rough upbringing’ and nor should we do so with jihadis, no matter what their age or gender. Ms. Begum needs to own up to what she chose and should face some consequence. Anything less is a mockery of justice, not the least of which for the tens of thousands of IS’ victims.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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