Shamima Begum affair marks the demise of ‘Londonistan’ era
Britain has moved from being a refuge for Islamist groups to actively excluding hostile radicals
The UK’s decision to bar Shamima Begum from her country amounts to a complete reversal of 20 years of policies that had allowed major cities to become key centres for radical Islamist groups.
The treatment of 19-year-old Ms Begum – and the potential for years of legal wrangling over her right to return to the UK – has shown how far British security policy has moved from embracing and monitoring extremists to making them someone else’s problem.
Ms Begum, who travelled to Syria with two school friends as a 15-year-old, was stripped of her nationality last month as she sought to return with her new-born son after fleeing dwindling ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. The baby later died.
The decision by Home Secretary Sajid Javid on the grounds of the national security threat she posed is expected to be challenged in the courts, but has highlighted how the UK’s policies had changed in response to a home-grown domestic threat.
Security officials operated an informal a “covenant of security” in the 1990s which allowed for UK cities to be safe havens for some extremists on the tacit understanding that they would not carry out attacks on British soil. The capital was dubbed ‘Londonistan’ because of the number of extremists who set up home there.
Abu Hamza, the extremist hate preacher now in jail in the United States, claimed in a 2006 criminal trial in the UK that undercover officers told him that he was free to express his views “as long as we don’t see blood in the street”.
He added: “It was Londonistan, not because of me, because of government policy.”
Despite his claims, he was jailed for six years for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder and later sentenced to life in jail in the US for supporting terrorism.
In 2013, David Blunkett, home secretary under premier Tony Blair from 2001 to 2004, told an academic: “I think there was a presumption…that if you knew who these people were, then you could monitor them.”
In the immediate years before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the UK was more focused on the threat from Irish republican terrorists, said Prof Michael Kenney, of the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Islamic State in Britain.
The toleration of Islamist groups eroded after 9/11 and changes in policy continued with the emergence of British-based terrorist plots.
The July 7, 2005 bombings of the London transport network, that left 52 people dead. saw police crack down on extremist preachers, such as Abu Hamza, who used the Finsbury Park mosque in north London for fiery sermons against the West.
It also saw police and security services focus on groups such as Al Muhajiroun, founded by Omar Bakri Muhammad, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir activist deported from Saudi Arabia in 1985.
“The authorities began to look at groups like Al Muhajiroun in a different light than they had before,” said Prof Kenney. “Before, Omar Bakri Muhammad was seen as a harmless loudmouth who talked a good game but didn’t really threaten the internal security of Britain.
“The policy of tolerance is gone. We have gone to the other extreme. The policy of tolerance has been turned on its head and is now a policy of extreme intolerance.”
The 2017 suicide bomb attack on a pop concert in Manchester by the British-born son of a prominent Libyan member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – a group supported by the UK to help bring down Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s regime – further highlighted the flaws of previous approaches to hardline Islamist exiles.
Britain’s counter-terrorist legislation has also been strengthened to confront the threat and improve the chances of prosecutors to secure convictions of disillusioned young British Muslims who travelled abroad to join Al Qaida and ISIS.
Laws have been expanded to ensure facilitators, accomplices, suppliers, financial backers and those “providing bed and board for terrorists”, are more likely to face successful prosecution, said Alex Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
New legislation introduced earlier this year allows for countries in conflict zones to become no-go areas for Britons who could face prosecution for travelling there.
The move was an attempt to get around the problems of securing evidence in countries with weak or no government and little prospect of gathering evidence safely.
Advocates of stronger counter-terrorism laws are pushing for the re-writing of Britain’s 670-year treason laws to widen the net and bring about increased sentences for extremists who take up arms against the UK.
“There has been some tightening up,” the head of prosecutions for England and Wales, Max Hill, told the BBC. “We do have a pretty good suite of legal tools allowing us to prosecute.”
But the move to strip Ms Begum of her citizenship and other ISIS members could play into the hands of recruiters and have far-reaching legal implications for the children of immigrants in the UK, counter-terrorism experts warned.
Two sisters held with their five children in Syrian refugee camps have also been stripped of their British citizenship by the Home Office, according to reports.
“For the first time in my 53 years of age, I feel that we are tier-two British citizens,” said Haras Rafiq, a British Muslim head counter-extremism think tank Quilliam. “Imagine how a 15-year-old living in a predominantly Muslim quarter in Europe must feel.”
Mr Javid ruled that Ms Begum, from east London, qualified for Bangladeshi citizenship through her family’s heritage.
While international law forbids stripping a passport if this causes statelessness, the British government said that her eligibility for Bangladeshi nationality meant it could take away her passport. Bangladesh subsequently said it will not grant Ms Begum a passport.
The decision by the UK was “truly witless and morally gutless,” said Michael Clarke, associate director of the security studies institute at the University of Exeter.
He said that the move would achieve the opposite of trying to ensure the safety of British citizens.
The best way to achieve security for Britons would be “not to have her rattling around in a refugee camp for the next three or more years” while her appeal grinds on,” said Professor Clarke.
“This will mean she remains a cause celebre, focus of resentment,” he said. “If she is too radicalised and dangerous to have back in the UK now, will she be less radical and activist after three years of this?”
He said that Ms Begum should be allowed to return to the UK to face trial or be forced to undergo long-term deradicalisation.
Deradicalisation has proven successful for women including Hadiya Masieh, who was recruited by Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Tania Joya, the ex-wife of one of ISIS' most senior commanders.
Revoking citizenship could provide extra ammunition to extremist recruiters who peddle the idea of a West hostile to Muslims, said analysts.
“If we continue with this trajectory we’ll be sowing the narrative for [terrorists] to reap and use against us,” said Hanif Qadir, who ran a deradicalisation programme in east London and raised the alarm about the plans of schoolgirls linked to Ms Begum to join ISIS in Syria.
Attacks and plots over the last 15 years has brought about a dramatic change between the government and Islamist exiles who are “seen as an ongoing and persistent threat to the UK,” said Fiyaz Mughal of Faith Matters, which runs a service monitoring racist attacks on Muslims in the UK.
“The covenant has long gone, it’s completely broken,” he said.
Updated: April 2, 2019 03:18 PM