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Thousands of Westerners Joined ISIS. Should They Be Allowed to Return?

Women at an IDP camp in northeastern Syria, April 2019 Ali Hashisho / REUTERS

When Westerners arrived in the caliphate, they would burn their passports, ceremonially rejecting their national identity, and brag of the act on Twitter. Now that the Islamic State, or ISIS, has lost its last stretches of land in Iraq and Syria, hundreds of these Westerners and their children are stuck in camps and prisons in northern Syria and Iraq, often hoping to return to their home countries. Their governments, however, don’t want to take the jihadists back—and are resorting to dubious measures to keep them out.

Take the case of Shamima Begum. In 2015, at the age of 15, Begum and two school friends, both also teenagers, ran away from home in east London and flew to Istanbul. From there, they took a bus to the Syrian border, eventually reaching Raqqa, where they joined ISIS. At the time, the girls epitomized the phenomenon of “jihadi brides:” vulnerable young women groomed by online recruiters to marry Islamist fighters in Syria.

A different picture emerged of Begum and her motives in an interview she gave to The Times this February, after a journalist tracked her down at a sprawling UN camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Syria. Begum explained that she had run away in search of a “perfect family” in ISIS and that she regretted nothing. She also volunteered that having seen a decapitated head in a trash can “didn’t faze” her and, in a later interview with the BBC, suggested that the 2017 Manchester bombing was a “kind of retaliation” for the West’s attacks on ISIS.

Shamima Begum and and two friends at London's Gatwick Airport before flying to Turkey, February 2015
Shamima Begum and and two friends at London's Gatwick Airport before flying to Turkey, February 2015 Metropolitan Police / The New Yo​rk Times / Redux

Ten days after arriving in Raqqa in 2015, Begum married a Dutch man who had converted to Islam and become an ISIS fighter. The young couple had three children, all of whom soon died, the third shortly after birth in the camp where Begum landed after fleeing the last remaining

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