For decades, terrorist organisations have targeted women for recruitment. Deployed as suicide bombers for Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Tamil Tigers, and Hamas – to name but a few – women have also died serving in frontline roles. Yet we are now faced with a new group of female terrorists that are proving difficult to prosecute. These are the women who joined Isis and now want to return home, often with their children in tow.
New pictures of Shamima Begum, released this week, serve to underscore this point. Begum’s story captivated the British public when she left the UK with her two friends to join Islamic State in 2015, aged 15. After the collapse of Isis, she was discovered in a refugee camp in northern Syria in 2019. Her subsequent interview with the Times created a national furore, when she declared that seeing a severed head in the bin ‘didn’t faze her at all’. She has since apologised, and like the dozen or so other British women living in limbo in Roj camp in Northeast Syria, now declines to speak to the media.
With Begum’s new Western clothes and hair free from the niqab, it is difficult not to see her change in wardrobe as a shift in mindset. But as her British citizenship has now been stripped (an option also deployed against white men such as Jack Letts) we may never know, in a British court at least, whether she has truly seen the error of her ways.
The best response to a crime is a punishment proportionate to the offence. Yet herein lies the complexities of prosecuting women who are a part of terrorist organisations. The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill currently making its way through Parliament would increase the maximum penalty for three offences from 10 to 14 years: membership of a proscribed organisation, supporting a proscribed organisation, and attending a place used for terrorist training.