LONDON - Pressure is mounting on the British government to decide whether it will repatriate — and prosecute when possible — dozens of the Islamic State group's surviving British-born recruits, currently held by U.S.-led Kurdish forces in northeast Syria.
Britain, like other European countries, has been reluctant to take back IS recruits, whether male fighters or so-called jihadi brides as well as their children. A small number have been repatriated to their countries of origin, but hundreds are awaiting political or legal resolution of their cases as their appeals for help have largely been ignored.
The discovery this week in a refugee camp of a pregnant 19-year-old British woman who joined the militant group along with two girlfriends in 2015 has reignited a furious debate in Britain about what to do with surviving IS recruits, especially those who joined when still teenagers.
Public pleas for repatriation of male fighters, as well as IS brides languishing in overcrowded refugee and detention camps in northern Syria, weren't helped this week by the defiance of Shamima Begum, who is nine months' pregnant with her third child. She was a schoolgirl when she sneaked off from her home in east London and joined IS in Syria. She and two friends married IS fighters, in her case a Dutchman who converted to Islam.
She expressed no remorse in an interview with The Times newspaper for joining IS, telling a reporter, "I don't regret coming here." She said the sight of a severed head of a captured fighter that had been discarded by a jihadist "didn't faze me at all." The pregnant teenager did speak of the deaths from malnutrition and illness of her first two children, saying she fled to the Kurds hoping to be returned to Britain for the sake of her still-to-be-born child so her infant can receive proper medical care in Britain's national health service.
"I'll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child," she said. She said IS deserved to be defeated. "There was so much oppression and corruption that I don't think they [IS] deserved victory."
Her family, along with the relatives of her friend Amira Abase, have called on the British government to allow both of them back, saying they represent no threat and should be forgiven for their youthful errors. They say they were groomed by IS and too young to be held responsible. Kadiza Sultana, the third girl, was killed in an airstrike in 2016.
"I have no doubt the government should let them back in and teach them, so they learn from their mistakes," said the father of Amira Abase. She is believed still to be with IS forces. Begum's elder sister, Renu, told a British broadcaster she hoped her sibling would be allowed back to Britain. She added that her sister is "pregnant and vulnerable," adding "it's important we get her ... home as soon as possible."
Warning from Britain
There's little public sympathy for the girls' plight, however, and Begum's interview has prompted a media firestorm. In a poll by Britain's Sky News, 76 percent of respondents said the girls should be barred from returning.
Britain's security minister, Ben Wallace, has said the government won't help with Begum's repatriation, although as a British citizen she has the right to return.
But he warned in a statement, "Everyone who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offenses, and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security. There are a range of terrorism offenses where individuals can be convicted for crimes committed overseas and we can also use Temporary Exclusion Orders to control an individual's return to the U.K."
London's Mayor Sadiq Khan has said that Begum should not be allowed back into Britain, if the security services believe she poses a risk to national security.
But the reporter who interviewed her, Anthony Loyd, said he believes Begum is an "indoctrinated jihadi bride" and urged against "judging her too harshly."
In December, a Belgian judge issued an order for the repatriation of half a dozen children and a pair of Belgian mothers, both IS recruits, from a Kurdish-controlled camp in northeast Syria. The women, Tatiana Wielandt and Bouchra Abouallal, both in their mid-20s, are being held in the al-Hol camp, one of several housing about 584 jihadi brides and 1,250 children, the offspring of IS fathers, most of them foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are now threatening to transport British IS fighters detained by the Kurds to the American detention center at Guantanamo Bay for prosecution before military commissions. Washington is especially keen to prosecute two alleged members of the so-called "Beatles" terror gang, Londoners El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, for their suspected participation in the torture and beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, including American reporters James Foley and Steve Sotloff.
An estimated 800 captured IS foreign fighters are being held by the Kurds. Officials from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have said for more than a year that they are highly reluctant to accept the repatriation of IS foreign fighters or their wives, despite appeals by the Kurds and the Trump administration to do so. U.S. officials fear the fighters will be able to slip away, if they are not returned to their home countries.
European officials say they represent security risks and that there would be technical and legal difficulties in prosecuting them. Repatriated foreign fighters and their wives would try to use the courts for propaganda purposes, if prosecutions were mounted, they fear. Official British figures show that only one in 10 British IS fighters who managed to return home has been prosecuted. Most have been required to join rehabilitation programs.