Shamima Begum poses 'no danger' and should be free to return to UK, says ex-US diplomat

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Shamima Begum does not pose a threat to the British public, according to a former US ambassador who met her in northeast Syria - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph
Shamima Begum does not pose a threat to the British public, according to a former US ambassador who met her in northeast Syria - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

Shamima Begum does not pose a danger to the British public and should be allowed to return home, according to a retired US ambassador who recently helped free a Canadian woman from the same Syrian detention camp as the former Bethnal Green schoolgirl.

"I’ve talked to Shamima – she is part of the group of women who have absolutely rejected the Islamic State – I know enough about her to feel quite confident that she’s not a dangerous person," Peter Galbraith told The Telegraph on Tuesday, following reports that the former diplomat had secured the release of a Canadian mother.

The Canadian woman was freed from Roj camp in northeast Syria over the weekend and crossed into the Kurdistan region of Iraq where she was able to request consular assistance, which was first reported by Canadian outlet Global News.

Mr Galbraith said he was instrumental in obtaining the woman's freedom after helping repatriate her four-year-old daughter to Canada earlier this year.

Her release was exceptional, he said, and did not represent a change in policy by Syrian Kurdish authorities, who maintain that foreign governments must ask for their citizens before they will release them.

Roj camp in northeast Syria holds thousands of foreign woman and children who were captured during the war against Islamic State - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph
Roj camp in northeast Syria holds thousands of foreign woman and children who were captured during the war against Islamic State - Sam Tarling for The Telegraph

"This was a special case," he said. "I don’t think there’s a change there."

The Canadian woman had faced threats by IS supporters after rejecting the group, Mr Galbraith said. Crucially she had also cooperated with US law enforcement and provided information leading to the rescue of a child born to a Yazidi woman who had been enslaved by IS, he added.

"There are other women who have rejected the Islamic State, I don’t know if there are many who have been so helpful to law enforcement and, in her case, the identification of people including Americans who have committed major crimes," he said.

Syrian Kurdish authorities conducted their own investigation of the woman before releasing her and concluded she had not committed any crimes, according to Mr Galbraith.

Mr Galbraith previously helped repatriate a German woman, three German children and an American orphan who were also held in Roj camp, using contacts with foreign ministries and Kurdish officials from his time as a diplomat dating back to the 1980s.

Around 15-20 British women currently live in Roj camp

Roj camp holds more than 700 foreign families who lived under IS and is guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Western-backed militia that captured the last of the terrorist group’s territory in early 2019.

About 15-20 British women and their children are believed to be living in the camp, alongside citizens of some 50 other countries, including about 30 Canadian citizens, mostly children.

Canada’s foreign ministry said it was aware that a Canadian citizen had crossed from Syria into Iraq.

"The Government of Canada was not involved in securing the individual's exit from northeastern Syria," a spokesperson said, citing privacy laws as reason for not divulging further information.

Roj Camp - Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP
Roj Camp - Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP

Canada’s Government has said it would not risk sending its officials to northeast Syria to provide consular assistance but would be obligated to provide help to any citizen who could reach a Canadian diplomatic mission.

Begum, the former London schoolgirl who was 15 when she travelled with two friends to Syria to live under the Islamic State group, was also worthy of repatriation, Mr Galbraith believes.

"The basic position of the British government is that Shamima is somehow dangerous and I just don’t think that’s true," he said.

Begum is currently challenging the stripping of her citizenship by the British Government, who argue she poses a security risk.

UK Government has stripped citizenship of 19 Britons in Syria

The UK Government has stripped the citizenship of at least 19 of 25 British adults known to be detained in northeast Syria, according to advocacy group Reprieve, who say the real number is likely even higher.

Mr Galbraith said Begum’s lack of citizenship meant she was unlikely to be freed without help from a government. "She has no place to go," he said. "There’s a very important distinction that the Canadian woman has somewhere to go."

On Monday, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, reiterated calls for governments to repatriate their citizens from northeast Syria, while speaking at a meeting of the international coalition against IS in Rome.

The head of the SDF also called for the repatriation of "tens of thousands of women, children and Isis fighters," using a different acronym for IS.

"We call on the Coalition to help return these people to their home countries, fund education and de-radicalisation programs, and support stability and strong economic recovery in the liberated areas to address the root causes of extremism," Mazloum Abdi wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Anthony Blinken - Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
Anthony Blinken - Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Mr Galbraith, who says he focuses most of his advocacy work on the victims of IS, said he understands the reluctance of foreign governments to repatriate IS members.

"Every foreign adult basically committed a crime," he said of those detained by the SDF.

"There is no doubt that there are dangerous women in these camps. In my mind it is reasonable for governments to err on the side of caution," he said.

But, he added: "you really can make a judgement about who is safe and who are questionable and there really are some who are unquestionably safe."

Mr Galbraith has also been involved in reuniting formerly enslaved Yazidi women and children with their communities. "A case like Shamima’s gets a lot of attention but these other cases get a lot less," he said.

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