It now seems a certainty that one of the three Bethnal Green schoolgirls who travelled to Syria via Turkey last year, in order to join ISIS, Kadiza Sultana, is dead.
Given the difficulty of securing hard news from Raqqa, we cannot know the exact circumstances of her death, but the story seems clear enough. Raqqa is, after all, a very dangerous place.
The details so far seem to indicate that Miss Sultana, despite her marriage to a jihadi warrior, did not find the Caliphate the paradise she had hoped for.
Whichever way one looks at this story, it is a tragic one. Some may feel some sense of schadenfreude at the thought of her fate, but this is to be resisted. Rather we should try to understand what this tells us about the ISIS phenomenon and the way that it attracts young people born and bred in the West.
First of all, it should be clear that a teenage girl from Bethnal Green can have little appreciation of what life is really like in Syria, a country where even in peace time, conditions were markedly different from London. Whatever romantic ideas Sultana and her friends might have had about the Middle East in general and Raqqa in particular would have been rapidly dissipated by the heat, dust, flies and inadequate sanitation, to say nothing of food shortages and shortages of other things they would have been brought up to regard as normal. A trip to Raqqa would have been a lesson in the way the other half lives.
Moreover, being married off to a jihadi warrior who was more or less a complete stranger could well have been more traumatic than romantic.
Again, living under the restrictions that ISIS places on all women, including its female adherents, would have been a shock to any East London girl. After all, Sultana and her friends were at an English school where they were free to do as other English girls. There would have been none of that in Raqqa.
Finally, while Sultana and her friends might well have thought they supported ISIS from a distance, the actual close up experience of the ISIS regime with its draconian punishments such as beheadings and crucifixions, might well have caused them to think twice.
If Sultana had managed to return to London, the Guardian tells us: “In March last year, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, said the teenagers could return home without fear of being prosecuted for terrorism, as long as no evidence emerged of them being engaged in violence."
One wonders why the Commissioner made this statement. The “engaged in violence" caveat seems pretty meaningless. Anyone who supports ISIS is engaged in violence, as ISIS is an intrinsically violent organisation: to make common cause with them is to make common cause with murder, which is surely criminal.
Should returnees from Syria be prosecuted? Yes, they should, as should anyone who encourages people to go to Syria in the first place. Sorry as one must feel for Miss Sultana, the truth remains that duped as she was, she was also responsible for her actions and should have known better. But the greater fault must belong to those who persuaded her to go to Syria.
The Commissioner’s words seem to indicate that one can go to Syria to join ISIS without incurring blame. To believe that would be to indulge in a misleading moral fantasy.
by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith