LONDON - British-born Sumaiyyah Wakil was 16 years old when she sneaked away to war-torn Syria, flying first to Bulgaria, then Turkey, to join the Islamic State terror group.
Once in IS’s de facto capital, Raqqa, she bragged, according to British court documents, about watching the public stoning of a woman, describing the killing as “so cool.”
But now her family say the British authorities should repatriate her when she re-emerges, likely soon, from IS territory as well as other British teenagers who joined the militants. Wakil’s parents and the families of IS recruits argue their offspring were manipulated by jihadist recruiters and were too young to know what they were doing when they went off to Syria.
The predicament of surviving young foreign IS recruits — especially of the women, most of whom left like Wakil, as schoolgirls without family approval or prior parental knowledge — has sparked a ferocious moral, political and legal debate in Britain, as well as other European states, about whether they should be readmitted to their birth countries, let alone helped to return and given a second chance.
Opinion polls suggest most Britons don’t think they deserve the right to return.
In Britain, the debate was triggered in earnest last week with the discovery by reporter Anthony Loyd of a pregnant 19-year-old British woman in a Kurdish-managed refugee camp in northeast Syria. Shamima Begum, who gave birth to her third child Sunday, joined the militant group in 2015 at the age of 15, slipping off with two school friends, all from east London.
One of the girls died in an airstrike in 2016; the other, Amira Abase, is still in IS territory. At least 900 Britons, an estimated 145 of them women and 50 minors, joined IS. In total, an estimated 5,000 Europeans joined the militant group, although some analysts say the figure is likely higher.
Britain, like other European countries, has been reluctant to repatriate IS recruits, whether it be male fighters or so-called "jihadi brides," as well as their children. A small number have been assisted in returning to their countries of origin, but hundreds are awaiting political or legal resolution of their cases as their appeals for repatriation have largely been ignored by alarmed European governments, who see the recruits as security risks who betrayed their countries.
U.S. officials have been urging European governments, for more than a year, to take back surviving recruits — and prosecute them. Otherwise they will slip away, they say, from refugee and detention facilities in northeast Syria and pose a greater threat once unsupervised. On Saturday, a frustrated U.S. President Donald Trump urged the Europeans to take charge of their rogue citizens, saying the alternative is the Kurds will have to free them.
European officials say most can’t be put on trial because of the difficulty in collecting hard evidence against them for individual wrongdoing, and they worry their presence will over-tax already strained security services. More than 900 foreign jihadists and 3,200 wives and children are being held by the Kurds.
Begum, whose two previous children died from malnutrition and sickness, says she wants to return to Britain, mainly because she’s worried about her baby’s health. “I think a lot of people should have, like, sympathy towards me for everything I've been through,” she said in a recent interview.
But she has neither expressed remorse over joining IS nor disavowed the group's ideology. In an interview with Sky News, she claimed she was "just a housewife" during her time in IS's self-styled caliphate, where she married a young Dutch jihadist shortly after arriving.
And asked whether she was aware of the IS beheadings and executions, she answered matter-of-factly that she’d been “OK with it.” She said: “Yeah, I knew about those things and I was OK with it. Because, you know, I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamically, that is all allowed.” In an interview with the BBC, she said the 2017 terror attack on the Ariana Grande concert, in which 22 people were killed, was justified retaliation.
Her lack of contrition has prompted public outrage, with detractors saying she displays a breathtaking sense of entitlement. Her family, though, says she is brainwashed.
Muhammad Rahman, her brother-in-law who is married to an older sister, told reporters: “I can understand why many people in Britain do not want Shamima to be allowed back into the country after what she has done … but she went as a 15-year-old and I don’t know a 15-year-old can make such a decision with any responsibility. She was a minor when she left and she surely has been brainwashed.”
Some radicalization experts have long argued that young Westerners were cleverly groomed by recruiters, in much the same way pedophiles target prey with tailored, manipulative narratives to build a false sense of kinship.
Mia Bloom, a communications professor at George State University and recognized radicalization expert, highlighted, as the caliphate unfolded, how IS groomers were skillful at exploiting the vulnerabilities and confusion of disoriented Western teenagers already struggling with identity issues.
Bloom said IS matched recruiters with potential supporters in terms of age, nationality and gender. The marketing narratives would shift depending on the target’s vulnerabilities — from arguments about equality and inclusion to offers of friendship and the promise of belonging. For some, there would be the lure of utopian adventure. Others would be manipulated by recruiters emphasizing their obligations to Islam.
Manipulated or not, commentator Janice Turner, a columnist with The Times of London, says while the age of some IS recruits should be taken into account, she questions, “at what point does a young person stop being a gullible victim, malleable clay moulded by older minds and dangerous ideology, and become responsible for his or her deeds?”
In Begum’s east London neighborhood of Bethnal Green, there are mixed feelings. Some locals say she might have been manipulated into going, but her lack of remorse now is alarming and suggests she remains a radicalized menace. The plight of the children of IS recruits is what pulls at most heartstrings, and even those adamant that the recruits should not return, say the children can’t be left to their fates.
On the legal front, there have been calls for treason laws to be applied against IS recruits, including jihadi brides, but those laws may not be appropriate, legal scholars say.
Interior minister Sajid Javid reflected British anger last week by saying Begum and other recruits shouldn’t be readmitted. He later conceded, however, that he can’t block legally most of them permanently from re-entry. But Tuesday he made a U-turn, ordering his officials to start the process of stripping Begum of her British citizenship.