The revelations on three British schoolgirls trafficked to become ‘Jihadi Brides’ of Daesh must be investigated by an independent panel.
The world of intelligence gathering and surveillance can be a difficult and murky one to navigate, since it operates largely in the shadows. Sometimes, however, its activities come to light and reveal how unethically powerful agents and coercive institutions can behave.
A perfect example of this has recently re-emerged in the media, and involves the well-known case of three British schoolgirls from Bethnal Green in London who reportedly ran away to Syria in 2015 to join the Daesh and become the so-called ‘Jihadi Brides’.
Two of the girls—Kadiza Sultana (16) and Amira Abase (15)—were reportedly killed in anti-Daesh airstrikes in 2016 and 2018/19, respectively. The sole survivor, Shamima Begum (aged 15 at the time), is currently in a refugee camp in North-East Syria and unable to return to the UK because the government stripped her of her citizenship, making her stateless.
Within a month of the girls arriving in Daesh-held territory in Syria, it emerged that they had been trafficked. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the A Haber broadcaster that the trafficker was “someone who works for the intelligence service of a country that is part of the [anti-Daesh] coalition”. Cavusoglu would not name the country in question but Turkish media soon revealed that the agency in question was the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), and that the trafficker was a man named Mohammed al-Rashed.
Al-Rashed was soon found and detained in February 2015 by Turkish authorities. He had been responsible for trafficking multiple people, including children, to Daesh and using them as bait to collect information on the group’s hideouts and locations which he was then sharing with his handlers in the Canadian embassy in Jordan.
Within 48 hours, media outlets in the West had picked up the story of al-Rashed’s arrest, but the commentary was filled with the doubts and scepticism of ‘expert’ commentators, who downplayed the seriousness of the revelations on the grounds that the source was Ankara.
Jonathan Paris of the right-wing think-tank ‘The Hudson Institute’, for instance, told Canadian CTV News he was sceptical of the reports because they reflected Türkiye’s desire “to spread the blame or at least shift the blame that’s been coming towards them for not having been more cooperative [in the anti-Daesh struggle]”.
Professor Stephen Van Evera from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was far less restrained. “The notion of any Canadian tie is ridiculous,” he told CTV News. “The real people responsible for all this trafficking are the Turks”.
Not only is this sort of analysis shortsighted and ideologically pre-determined but it reflects a historically precedented anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Turkishness that permeates the corridors of power across several western capitals, and is reflected in western media coverage, including countless op-eds, magazine columns and news broadcasts.
This perhaps explains why the Turkish government was also keen to push back against the sustained accusations levelled at it.
“This incident should be a message to those always blaming Türkiye on the debate on the flow of foreign terrorist fighters,” an official statement released by the Turkish government and cited in the Daily Sabah read. “It is a problem more complicated than a mere border security issue”.
With al-Rashed in Turkish custody, the Canadians, seemingly concerned that their role in the trafficking plot would be exposed, decided to come clean in a meeting with the Head of UK Counterterrorism Police, Commander Richard Walton.
However, rather than these revelations serving as a corrective to the anti-Muslim discourse that had been intensifying in the UK media and policy discourse since the girls had been trafficked in 2015, the British simply covered up the information they received about what Canadian intelligence had done.
Richard Kerbaj revealed this cover-up in a new book titled The Secret History of the Five Eyes, which examines the intelligence alliance between the five nations, the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The revelation was broken by The Times and other media outlets. The cover-up chronicled by Kerbaj reveals a number of important, and troubling, things.
Firstly, it documents British complicity with the Canadians in concealing how British children had been trafficked into an active war zone and into the ranks of their sworn enemy, Daesh.
Secondly, it confirms that the UK authorities remained silent even as UK courts were stripping Begum of her citizenship and making her stateless, despite having full knowledge that she was a victim of a Canadian intelligence-abetted trafficking plot. Indeed, even though Begum's case was being used to establish a legal precedent in court cases involving citizenship revocation, and new laws – such as the Borders and Nationality Act 2022 – were being passed to make it easier to strip Britons of their citizenship, these agencies and individuals remained silent.
Thirdly, by its silence, the British security establishment has been effectively complicit in strengthening anti-Muslim hatred and the moral panic around ‘radicalisation’ and terrorism, and allowed the Muslim community to continue to face accusations of being a fifth-column worthy only of suspicion, surveillance, scorn and securitisation.
Fourthly, this story reveals the blurred boundaries between ‘counterterrorists’ and ‘terrorists’, and how state security services are sometimes complicit in amplifying the power and reach of terrorist actors and thereby playing a part in eroding public confidence and trust in policing and security policy and institutions.
In this cover-up, a utilitarian calculation was adopted in which the means – no matter how unethical or wrong – justified the ends.
Richard Kerbaj has performed a valuable public service by revealing that British authorities have been complicit in the trafficking of the British schoolgirls into the arms of the West’s official, sworn enemies.
Nevertheless, his findings raise more questions than they provide answers, including for Kerbaj (and The Times). Notably: How long did they know about this cover-up before deciding to make this knowledge public? Could they have reported it sooner, before Begum was deprived of her citizenship? If so, was it not in the public interest to report the story earlier to protect a British victim of child trafficking from being wronged by her own government?
These revelations should not only compel the UK courts to immediately review their decision to strip Begum of her citizenship, but should prompt the public to ask tough questions of the ethics, purpose, and consequences of the work undertaken by powerful agencies and actors who claim to be fighting and reporting on the topic of terrorism.
The wall of silence behind which the British government and security agencies are now hiding since the revelations came to light needs to be broken. For public confidence in the British state’s commitment to decency and democracy to be restored, an independent and transparent investigation is urgently needed.
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