She was 15 when she sneaked away from home in East London with two friends and joined the Islamic State. Then, four years later, Shamima Begum showed up in a refugee camp in Syria, pregnant and asking to return home.
Her request sparked national debate in Britain about what the government owed the young woman, who willingly joined the group as a minor and in media interviews seemed to show little remorse, even as she begged to be let back home. Her family members later said the British government informed them that it planned to strip Begum, now 19, of her citizenship.
But now British Home Secretary Sajid Javid is under fire after Begum’s infant son, born around three weeks ago, fell ill and died in the Syrian camp.
“The tragic death of Shamima Begum’s baby, Jarrah, is a stain on the conscience of this government,” said Diane Abbott, a leader in the opposition Labour Party. “The home secretary failed this British child and he has a lot to answer for.”
Begum’s wish to return home was met with major controversy in Britain. Some thought she posed an imminent threat to national security, while others argued that she joined the terrorist group as a naive teenager and deserved the chance to come home. In an interview with a reporter from the Times of London, who found her in the Syrian camp, she said she wanted to return home in large part because of her son’s health.
“I’m scared this baby is going to get sick in this camp,” she told the newspaper. “That’s why I really want to get back to Britain, because I know it will be taken care of, like, health-wise, at least.”
Begum went on to make media appearances, shocking Britons and her family when she at times defended the Islamic State. At one point, she told the BBC that although she was unhappy that innocent people had been killed, she thought the 2017 bombing of an arena in Manchester was “fair justification” in response to coalition airstrikes that have killed women and children in Syria. In an interview with Sky News, a reporter asked whether she had any regrets before the Islamic State lost control of Raqqa, ISIS’s headquarters in northern Syria. Begum replied “no.”
Her situation has raised difficult ethical and legal questions about foreigners who join terrorist organizations abroad. Advocates for Begum say it is unjust to rescind her citizenship rather than bring her home and let her face trial. Begum’s family has roots in Bangladesh, but officials there have made it clear that Begum doesn’t qualify for Bangladeshi citizenship, meaning Britain’s decision to strip her of British citizenship could essentially render her stateless.
An Alabama woman is facing a similar predicament. President Trump has said the United States will not allow Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old who joined the Islamic State and is now living with her son at a Syrian refugee camp, back into the country. She claimed she was “brainwashed” by the group and wants to return home.
In Begum’s case, Javid had previously told the British Parliament that “children should not suffer, so if a parent does lose their British citizenship, it does not affect the rights of their child."
Begum’s sister wrote a letter to Javid and asked him to help the family bring her infant nephew to Britain. Begum said she had given birth to two other children in Syria, both of whom also died. Her husband, Yago Riedijk, a Dutchman who has admitted fighting for the Islamic State, is being held at a Kurdish detention center. He recently told the BBC that he would like to return to the Netherlands with his wife and son.
In an interview published Saturday on the BBC, Begum’s father apologized on her behalf and asked “the British people, please forgive her.”
“Sadly, there are probably many children, obviously perfectly innocent, who have been born in this war zone,” Javid told the BBC before the baby’s death was confirmed. “I have nothing but sympathy for the children that have been dragged into this. This is a reminder of why it is so, so dangerous for anyone to be in this war zone.”
On Twitter, Abbott further lashed out at Javid, saying he “had a moral responsibility for the baby.”
“He has behaved shamefully,” she said.