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'No regrets,' but with child in arms, this ISIS bride wants to come home

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Image: Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, hol
Renu Begum, eldest sister of missing British girl Shamima Begum, holds a picture of her sister while being interviewed by the media in central London. -
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Laura Lean
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LONDON — A British teenager who fled her home and joined Islamic State in Syria says she now wants to come home — not because she is remorseful for joining the violent extremist group but so her unborn child will be safe.

The case of Shamima Begum will be seen as part of a wider dilemma for Western governments about what to do with people who want to return now that ISIS' control of swathes of Iraq and Syria has all but dissolved.

Begum, 19, was one of three British schoolgirls who abandoned their lives in east London almost overnight in 2015, traveling to join ISIS and each marrying the group's militants.

Her fate was largely unknown until Thursday when British newspaper The Times tracked her down in a refugee camp. She said she wanted to come home but said she wasn't sorry.

"I'm not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago," she told The Times, referring to her neighborhood in East London. "And I don't regret coming here."

Begum is emblematic of a challenge facing the U.S. and its European allies. She is like thousands of people all over the world who were lured by ISIS propaganda to join the militant movement then marauding the Middle East and beyond.

Once her trio arrived in Syria, they joined a fourth friend already there and each married an ISIS fighter, Begum said. One of the girls was killed in an airstrike, the other two elected to stay on for what could be the militants' final stand in a battle at the town of Baghuz, near the Iraqi border, she said.

It is not clear whether the girls were ever combatants, nor how deep their support for the group went. But now that ISIS has lost almost all of its territory, Western intelligence services worry about what to do with these so-called foreign fighters and their families once they return home.

The fear is that they could attempt to mount attacks once back in their homelands, or at least stir up support for a cause they may claim to have renounced. Attempting to monitor them represents a huge burden for governments.

I don't imagine the Foreign Office will be rushing into Syria to try and get hold of her.

"Somebody who has spent a lot of time in the caliphate is likely to be radicalized, and women are as capable of committing terrorist acts as men," said NBC News security analyst Duncan Gardham. "It may be a difficult task to make sure she is not radicalized and ensure that she's not a threat."

The stereotypical image of foreign fighter tends to be male, like Albert Berisha, a Kosovar man interviewed by NBC News last year who traveled to Syria to fight the government of Bashar al Assad and claims he accidentally fell in with an ISIS unit.

Returnees who have committed crimes with ISIS should be prosecuted, according to Shiraz Maher, director of International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at Kings College London.

But even that throws up issues about where to incarcerate them while they serving their sentences — without risking radicalizing other inmates — and what to do with them upon their release, Maher said in a tweet thread Thursday.

Again, it's not clear how deep Begum's involvement with ISIS went, but she should be treated no differently, in terms of the potential threat she poses the U.K., because she is a pregnant woman, Gardham said.

Last year, two sisters and their mother were jailed as part of an all-female terror cell that wanted to carry out an attack on British soil. In 2016, a British woman named Tareena Shakil, 26, was jailed for six years for taking her young son to Syria and joining ISIS.

If there is evidence, Begum could be arrested for joining a banned terror group, or for merely deliberately staying in what the British government calls a "designated area" — essentially a war zone like Syria.

Even if she is classified as a non-combatant, the importance of her merely being in Syria should not be dismissed, Maher said.

"Their presence in IS territory alone represented a type of moral and propaganda victory for the group," he tweeted. "Don't underestimate how important that was."

Her legal status might be the easy bit. Morally, there has already been a wide public disagreement in Britain about whether or not Begum can and should be rehabilitated back into society.

In 2015, she was widely portrayed as the 15-year-old victim of online brainwashing, someone who needed to be saved from the clutches of a murderous death-cult.

Now, her unapologetic interview in The Times has led many to say that she should be left to her own fate.

Security minister Ben Wallace pointed out that as a British citizen Begum had the right to return to the U.K. However he said she would at least be investigated by counterterror police and suggested that the public's safety would take priority.

"I'm not putting at risk British people's lives to go and look for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state," he said on BBC radio early Thursday.

British teenagers Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum walking with luggage at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on Feb. 17, 2015.
British teenagers Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum walking with luggage at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on Feb. 17, 2015.Metropolitan Police Service

Officially, it is U.K. policy to tell British women in this situation to get themselves to the nearest consulate to be repatriated. Unofficially, the government "would rather they did not come back," Gardham said. "They don't want jihadi brides back and they don't want jihadis back."

This stands in contrast to the approach of the U.S., which has been more likely to take on and prosecute alleged terrorists, Gardham added.

This difference in strategy could be seen in the case of El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, the two surviving members of an ISIS execution squad known as "The Beatles," who have been stripped of their British citizenship and could be extradited to the U.S. for prosecution.

Sir Mark Rowley, former head of British counterterrorism policing, agrees the U.K. will likely display a passive attitude toward Begum.

"I don't imagine the Foreign Office will be rushing into Syria to try and get hold of her," he told BBC radio Thursday morning.

If Begum were ever to return and be arrested, the problems would not stop there.

"I think actually the biggest challenge would be if she did come back," Sir Peter Fahy, the former head of Britain's counterterrorism program Prevent, told BBC radio.

"How the local police would keep her safe and how it would be ensured she would not be some sort of lighting rod," he added, "both for right-wing extremists and Islamic extremists, and that she wouldn't somehow try to justify her position and what she did."