What next for the missing Bethnal Green girls in Syria?

Originally Published by The Telegraph 03 July 2015. Original linked here.

Britain has seen hundreds of male foreign terrorist fighters return home, but what happens when Isil jihadi brides want to come back? While the number of Western male foreign terrorist fighters remains staggering, there is an equally unprecedented number of Western females migrating to Syria and Iraq to join Isil state-building efforts.

To many the continued exodus of Western women across Europe, leaving their homes to join territory run by a terrorist organisation, remains shocking. Large numbers of women have left from the UK and France. Meanwhile reports recently announced that over 100 women are thought to have left from Germany alone. However, while participating in combat has clear penal consequences, females joining Isil often fall into undefined legal spaces.

Women travelling to Isil territory are not currently permitted to participate in combat, but they do fully embrace the extremist propaganda; dictating that their divine role is as wife to a strong jihadist husband and mother to the next generation. One of their primary roles is to pass on the jihadist ideology and their version of strict Sharia Law to their children. Yet Western women joining Isil are not necessarily breaking any terrorist-related offences by making this journey.

As pointed out by legal specialists in an exposé about three underage Canadian girls attempting to go to Syria, it is not illegal to marry or associate with a criminal, be they bank robbers, mafia members or terrorists. While most Western countries dictate that it is illegal to facilitate a terrorist activity or instruct others to engage in a terrorist organisation, the act of marrying a terrorist is not itself a crime. Migration is not a criminal act. However, the social media accounts of these women, often glorifying acts of terror and encouraging others to join, will ultimately be what breaks legal framework.

This has been highlighted in the ongoing prosecution of Tareena Shakil. The British mother from Burton upon Trent was arrested in February after allegedly taking her son to join the so-called Islamic State. She has denied her terrorist charges of inciting terrorism via social media and belonging to a banned organisation. How her ‘belonging’ to Isil is defined in court will set precedence for other females returning to the UK.

But what happens when women in Isil wants to return home? We have seen a few hundred male foreign terrorist fighters return, many openly expressing regret. Yet there are only a handful of known female returnee cases. Leaving Isil territory remains ten times more difficult for females.

Passports are routinely confiscated or destroyed upon arrival. Once in Isil territory, women are prohibited from leaving the house without permission from a male guardian and a male chaperone is needed. A woman attempting to escape, unaccompanied and without documentation, puts herself at risk of severe consequences.

Western countries need to scale up efforts in the preventative space, particularly for women who largely remain a blind spot for security officials. Border agencies have increased awareness in recent months. However, cross-border communications and information sharing will need advancing if efforts to deter individuals from joining Isil are to be adequately enforced. Real prevention needs to include education about the risks of violent extremisms and counter-narratives that include gender perspectives.

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