There was always an oddity in the wars of the 21st century. It is not just their technological advances, or longevity, but (as the writer Mark Steyn first observed) the fact that if you were from one of the Western countries involved it seemed as though you had a choice: whether you would like to fight in the “home” or “away” team.
You could, of course, join the army of the state you were born in — the state which had given you an education, safety, sanctuary and freedom of religious worship, and whose armies aimed to expand those rights to others. Or you could choose to fight for the opposition and fight against people of your own age, from your own country, and to deny the rights you enjoyed to strangers in faraway lands. Either way, once the hostilities were over — or even before that, if you fancied — everyone from both sides could return back to their hometowns and call it quits.
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For years we suffered the consequences of this curious historical anomaly. It started in the more complex battlefields of the Balkan in the 1990s, when western states like Britain and France weren’t so sure of what they were dealing with. Then people who had gone to fight with the mujahideen would come back, tell people in their home countries of what they had done and help to heroise and metastasise their growing ideological movement. It was a relatively novel movement, and there was not much that western governments could do.
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the western nations came to learn the difficulties involved in dealing with this very modern problem. The Americans set up one option — Guantanamo Bay — which faltered from the start, not just because of bad PR but from the inadequacies of any justice system to deal with such people. How could you treat with members of an army who were not in uniform, representing non-state actors or states that didn’t formally exist?
As the Guantanamo trials dragged through their first and into their second decade the lawyers and human rights campaigners stressed the inhumanity of keeping people awaiting trial for so many years. But their own answers were always pat and inadequate, boiling down to “Why not just put them in front of a jury like any other criminal?”
The answers were many, but they all centred on issues of collecting evidence, putting such evidence in front of a jury and ensuring a fair trial. The difficulty of prosecuting people for fighting on a foreign battlefield were not a demonstration of western inhumanity. They were evidence — if anything — of an excess of that humanity, a desire to extend a principle even to its utmost extent. But what nobody wanted (other than supporters of the fighters themselves) was for hundreds or even thousands of people to be put through trials which failed and saw dangerous people back on the streets of their home country.
In these circumstances it is a striking failure of our political and legal systems that the case of Shamima Begum should ever have arisen. True there is one complicating factor, which is that she was 15 when she left the UK and headed to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. But that aside the case is in many ways very straightforward. Ms Begum — like hundreds of other young Muslims from the UK — heard the call of the “Caliphate” and in 2015 she went to join it.
Like many others the precise details of what she did there are opaque and different rumours and accounts circulate. By her own account she was merely a nice ISIS housewife; by the recollections of others she was involved in the darkest aspects of a group unparalleled in its depravity this century, helping to stitch suicide vests and more. Of course she and her lawyers present her as a victim, in the process once again demeaning the real victims of ISIS — the Yazidis, the Christians, the “wrong type of Muslims” and anyone else who failed to sign up to their fanatical sect.
This is all part of a very familiar pattern. Among the Westerners who went to join ISIS a great many come back saying that they didn’t really see anything, that they didn’t know what they were signing up to and that in any case they were the ones who suffered most.
All of this is impossible for any fair-minded person to believe. Even at the age of 15 nobody could have mistaken ISIS for a Butlin’s Holiday camp; nobody can believe that recruits were not involved in the day-to-day barbarism of the group. And nobody can have very much sympathy for people who knowingly went to join a head-hacking movement only to be disappointed to discover that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Begum did not help herself when she first spoke to media who had tracked her down after the Caliphate’s collapse. In an interview with The Times correspondent who found her in a refugee camp in northern Syria she said that she had not been much bothered by seeing a decapitated body because she knew that the person must have been “an enemy of Islam”.
The British public does not warm to such talk, strangely enough, but soon Begum had lawyers and PR support and they clearly realised that she needed to work on her public image. Begum may have personally renounced her British citizenship the moment she went to join the Islamic State, but these people argued that she was a British citizen whether Britain liked it or not, and that she should return.
In the period since The Times interview Begum and her supporters have been working on her public image. Not only has she started to say nice things about Britain, but she made sure that kitsch little touches entered the fray. For instance she had a cushion carefully scattered behind her which just happened to have the Union Jack flag on it.
By this point she had reason to be worried, since the-then Home Secretary Sajid Javid had revoked her British citizenship. Begum and her lawyers vowed to reverse this decision, and now indeed it seems she may be successful — for yesterday the Court of Appeal announced that in its opinion Begum had been denied a fair hearing in this matter because she could not make her case from the refugee camp she is in. The court’s judgement means that Begum may now be allowed to return to the UK to fight the Government’s decision to remove her citizenship.
Let me, then, make a prediction: if Begum steps foot back in Britain she will never again have to leave it. Once here it will not matter whether she wins her appeal or loses it, for even if she loses she will have appeal after appeal and these will be able to drag on until the end of her days.
Even if there is an order to remove her it will not be acted upon; her lawyers and the considerable lobby of people who like to argue on the grounds of human rights will make every possible argument in her defence. If Britain even thinks of keeping her citizenship revoked then it will have to send her somewhere, and every country in the world will be presented as too barbaric or inconvenient for Ms Begum to reside there. And so we will be stuck with her, and one of the strangest and most unjusts aspects of modern warfare will repeat itself.
The attraction of war was always the same. Men and women of violence could take what they wanted by force. If they were successful, then there was nothing in the world that they could not have.
But the most basic restraining mechanism on war throughout time has always been that the consequences of losing are so catastrophic. For if you lost then you could lose everything: your home, your loved ones, your life.
And that is why the case of people like Begum is so unsatisfactory. She and her cohorts waged war against this country and our allies; they lost, and by the most fundamental laws of justice and war they should have lost everything.
And yet they didn’t. They waged war and lost and countries like Britain still contemplated returning them to the status quo ante. So it isn’t just that you can sign up for the home or away team. You can sign up for the away team and if they lose you can demand to be treated with all the same rights and respect as though you were playing for the home team all the way along.
That is why the case of Begum rankles. It is not just against this or that article or law; it howls out against one of the most fundamental rules of human justice: the rule that the most terrible actions should have the most terrible consequences.
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