Shamima Begum a bigger danger to national security if left in Syria, former MI6 chief says

Shamima Begum at the al-Roj refugee camp in Syria - Sam Tarling
Shamima Begum at the al-Roj refugee camp in Syria - Sam Tarling

Shamima Begum poses “significantly” more danger to national security if she is left in Syria rather than brought back to the UK, a former MI6 chief has warned.

The 23-year-old fled London to join Islamic State (IS) when she was a schoolgirl in 2015 and is now challenging the Home Secretary’s decision to strip her British citizenship in 2019.

Ms Begum claims she was trafficked to Syria by the terror group for sexual exploitation and says MI5 was wrong to conclude she would be a threat to the public if she returned.

Richard Barrett, former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6, has now described MI5’s assessment of Ms Begum’s national security risk as “superficial and inadequate”.

In a report prepared for Ms Begum’s legal team, he wrote that it was “seriously open to doubt” that a pregnant teenage girl - as Ms Begum was when she resurfaced in 2019 - “presented a physical threat so great as to overwhelm the resources of the state”.

He continued: “She has been deprived of her citizenship as an individual without any explanation of how a giggly and impressionable member of a group of schoolgirls might have turned into a singular and uncontrollable monster.”

The former spy chief said the UK was “alone” in its response to the problem of repatriating citizens who travelled to join IS, compared to countries such as the US, Germany and France.

“States that have grasped the nettle, and repatriated ‘foreign fighters’ are no less safe and secure than states that have not,” he wrote.

“Indeed, we consider the contrary to have been the experience.”

The report, co-authored with counter-terrorism expert Paul Jordan, pointed out that Ms Begum’s ongoing detention in the al-Roj camp in northern Syria relied on “the willingness of the Kurds to continue handling the problem”.

Mr Barrett wrote: “From a national security perspective, refusing to repatriate individuals who now find themselves in camps in Syria is likely to be significantly more dangerous in the medium to long term than repatriating them and subjecting them to prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration.”

Detainees in the camps, such as Ms Begum, will only become more resentful towards Britain if they remain detained without charge, “suffering from malnutrition and lack of health services, becoming further psychologically damaged each day”, the report suggested.

By contrast, deradicalisation and disengagement programmes run to tackle extremism in the UK, such as Prevent, have been found to “generally work”, it said.

The report concluded: “The view that the legal, judicial, and security systems in the UK would be unable to cope with Ms Begum defies the standards that have been built and maintained over many years.

“It presents a poor reflection and lack of statesmanship on the world’s stage and domestically maligns all the competent and diligent professionals involved.”

The court also heard evidence from Ms Begum’s mother who said her “world fell apart” when her daughter left to join ISIS.

In extracts read by Ms Begum’s barrister Dan Squires KC, her mother said: “My youngest daughter is even more present in my mind, the one I think about almost every hour of every day.

“When she left home in 2015, our worlds fell apart.”

She continued: “Shamima and I shared a bedroom and I have not moved anything of hers from our room.

“Her drawers are still full, her perfume, pens and jewellery, her clothes are still there. Her pyjamas are folded neatly.

“The box with her school books I look at sometimes.

“Her school blazer is still hanging on the door in the front room, just as it was when she left.”

Ms Begum’s citizenship appeal concludes on Friday.