Stopping Shamima Begum returning to the UK is a wasted comms opportunity for the government

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is reported to have revoked Shamima Begum's British citizenship and, in doing so, has scored an own-goal in the comms battle against Islamist terrorism.

The most persuasive voices in behaviour-change campaigns are the ones who have ‘been there’, argues Ian Griggs
The most persuasive voices in behaviour-change campaigns are the ones who have ‘been there’, argues Ian Griggs

Begum should have been allowed to return and, if necessary, face charges for her actions under UK law. 

More importantly, she would have almost certainly been subject to a deradicalisation programme – and this is where the heart of the missed comms opportunity really lies.

Begum is reported to have said she did not wish to be a "poster girl" for terrorist group Islamic State (IS), but the price of her return to the UK could have been that she became the poster girl for countering the group's brutal philosophies instead.

It would have been a reasonable demand for the authorities to have made and a more fitting – not to mention more useful – atonement for her actions, if she were found to have broken the UK’s laws. 

It strikes me that the most persuasive voices in behaviour-change campaigns are the ones who have 'been there'.

Which is the more powerful voice when trying to communicate with someone in danger of adopting a terrorist mindset? 

Is it the carefully calibrated voice of the state, warning them of the consequences of their potential actions? 

Or is it the voice of someone who was groomed when she was still a child, brainwashed and then inducted into a death-cult, where she has since experienced the horrific reality of IS first-hand? 

At its core, this is a battle of ideas – between freedom of thought and action on one hand, and oppression and extremism on the other

Ian Griggs, opinion editor of PRWeek

The battle against Islamist terrorism is being fought on multiple fronts; militarily, in various theatres of war, and in cities around the world as an ongoing security threat.

But, at its core, this is a battle of ideas - between freedom of thought and action on one hand, and oppression and extremism on the other.

It is being fought daily, online – again, in multiple theatres, via different platforms.

Overcoming IS and its ilk on the physical battlefield is only one part of this struggle; it will take success in the battle of ideas to bring about a clear victory. 

Preventing Begum’s return to the UK is a strategic mistake in that wider battle of ideas against those who wish to inspire others to share their militant fundamentalist views.

Those who seek to radicalise more young people are alive to the same strategic comms opportunities that the UK is choosing to ignore. 

By cutting Begum and her innocent newborn son loose in Syria, the UK is either sending her back into the arms of terrorists or, if they do not survive, risks making martyrs of them both, creating a new propaganda tool for IS.

If Begum has broken the law, she should face the consequences in court and be placed under appropriate restrictions and surveillance by the security services.

Instead of pitching a tough-guy image to the media, the Home Secretary should have ignored those waving pitchforks and instead used the opportunity to project the British values of fairness, justice and mercy.

The birth of Begum’s son at the weekend, before she was stripped of citizenship, makes the matter even more complex, from a legal point of view, because he was born a British citizen. The Home Secretary's decision will almost certainly be challenged in court.

Even if the Government is successful, it will be a Pyrrhic victory and the perception battle will be lost. An innocent baby will have been punished for his mother's actions and the UK will have wasted a golden opportunity to help other young people at risk of radicalisation.

Ian Griggs is the opinion editor for PRWeek 

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