The justice secretary has conceded the government may not be able to stop IS bride Shamima Begum returning to the UK as it “can’t make people stateless”.
Speaking to Sky News, David Gauke warned of the risks of people returning “from dangerous parts of the world” and said the priority was ensuring the safety of the British public.
Mr Gauke’s comments appear to contradict those of Home Secretary Sajid Javid who has said he “will not hesitate” to prevent the return of the British teenager.
Mr Gauke said: “Obviously we have to act within the powers that we have.”
He added: “It is the case we can’t make people stateless, but without getting to drawn into the specifics, the approach that we take as a government, which is the responsible one, is to ensure that we protect the British public.
“That is the key thing.
“There are clearly dangers involved when we have people returning from dangerous parts of the world where they have voluntarily gone to and we need to make sure the British public are protected.”
His remarks came as Shamima Begum’s family urged the UK government to help bring her home.
She had left Britain as a 15-year-old schoolgirl to join Islamic State in Syria four years ago.
Now aged 19 and pregnant, she has told British media she does not regret leaving the UK and travelling to the terrorists’ caliphate, but wants to return home so her child can be looked after.
She has also pleaded not to be separated from her baby if she returns to Britain.
Speaking at refugee camp in northern Syria earlier this week, Shamima Begum revealed she is going to give birth “any day now”, having married a young Dutch IS fighter called Yago Riedijk three weeks after she arrived in the country in 2015.
And her assertion she is “not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago” has been highlighted as a cause for concern by some.
“I don’t regret coming here,” she said.
The teenager left the UK with two other friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, and said she has been living “a normal life” in the caliphate, interrupted by “bombing and stuff”.
Kadiza Sultana was reported to have been killed in an airstrike in 2016.
Speaking confidently and seemingly without any fear for her situation, Shamima Begum told The Times she had never seen an execution during her time with IS, “but I saw a beheaded head in the bin”.
“It didn’t faze me at all,” she added.
She also said she had two other children during her time with IS, but both died young due to illness
While not commenting on Shamima Begum’s case specifically, intelligence service chief Alex Younger said that someone who had been in “that sort of position” was likely to have acquired certain “skills or connections”.
Such an individual cannot be stopped if they decide to return to the UK, he added, but public safety was the first priority.
More Britons who joined Islamic State – mainly women – are believed to have been identified at Syrian camps in the last few days.
Sky sources say it is only thought to be a small number but there could be more British nationals who have yet to be identified.