According to her older sister Sahima, Shamima Begum was like any other 15-year-old girl, with the same hobbies, the same worries and infatuations which preoccupy the minds of most British teens. “She was into normal teenage things,” Sahima said. “She used to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
At 15, Shamima’s young mind was filled with much more than the affairs of the most famous family in Hollywood. Four months before she was due to sit her GCSEs, Shamima — the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, by all accounts a “sensible girl” and a “talented and dynamic” student at the high-flying Bethnal Green Academy — was secretly planning to leave her family and the only home she had ever known in London’s East End, and travel to Syria to become a jihadi bride.
Two of her school friends, Kadiza Sultana, then 16, and Amira Abase, 15, planned to accompany her, with the girls aiming to join another friend, Sharmeena Begum (no relation of Shamima), who had successfully travelled to Syria the year before. In an embarrassment for Scotland Yard, police had pulled a fifth girl from the group off the same flight Sharmeena was on without spotting the other girl. Two months later, it was the turn of the remaining three to make their escape.
When CCTV footage emerged of three girls wearing hooded winter coats and thick-rimmed glasses, strolling through Gatwick Airport with smiles on their faces, they appeared so calm and casual they looked as if they might be going on a school trip, not about to board a one-way flight to the most dangerous corner of the world.
Their secret plan to leave Britain had been formulated and executed with meticulous precision. The girls stole jewellery from family members which they sold to cobble together the money for flights (it’s thought they spent upwards of £1,000 on their one-way tickets — an amount their families said at the time they could have never afforded alone). They bought their tickets from a local travel agent, making sure there was some money left over. They had to make sure there was something left to pay the men who would smuggle them over the border into the Syrian war zone where Isil was carving out its caliphate.
The Spring half term began and on the morning of February 17 2015, Shamima, Kadiza and Amira told their families they were going out for the day. One had a wedding, another said she was popping into school to do some work. Instead, they packed a small bag of hand luggage each, and headed to Gatwick, where they would board Turkish Airlines flight TK1966 at 12:40pm to Istanbul. A shopping list found in one of the girls’ bedrooms featured a reminder to pack underwear and a mobile phone.
Under the noses of the counterterrorism police who had spoken to them two months earlier after their friend Sharmeena fled to Syria, the girls began their journey. Four years later, one of them, Kadiza, is now known to have been killed in a Russian airstrike. Shamima, now 19, is alive and preparing to give birth to her third child (her first two died in infancy) in a refugee camp in northern Syria, having escaped Isil’s last remaining stronghold. Amira and Sharmeena were last seen alive in June in the remaining pocket of Isil-held territory.
Shamima has lost two babies, her fighter husband is in captivity, and though she says she doesn’t regret coming to Syria, she has abandoned Isil at the 11th hour in an attempt to protect herself and her unborn child. For four years she has lived the life of a jihadi bride, witnessing the casual brutality of the regime on a daily basis and somehow escaping death herself. Now, she wants the ordeal to be over. She wants to come back home to Britain.
Four years ago, almost to the day, the girls arrived in Istanbul and took a bus to the southern town of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border. CCTV footage taken from a bus station showed them waiting with their bags. Another video, filmed by a smuggler called Mohammed Rashid (an Isil double agent who reportedly passed intelligence to the British and Canadian governments and was subsequently arrested by Turkish authorities), showed the girls clad in long black tunics trudging through a snowy landscape and clambering into a car.
Calling one of the girls “Sis”, Rashid gave them Syrian passports and tested codenames they had apparently been given. “Who is Um Ahmed?” he asked, before telling them to “hurry” and assuring them they would be in Syria in “one hour”.
They were taken to an illegal crossing point known as Abu Zella, north of Tal Abyad, where they were handed to a Saudi jihadist known as Abu Mohareb al-Jazrawi. He was part of an Isil cell charged with helping transport would-be foreign jihadists into Raqqa. He took the girls to a safe house which was used for new volunteers who had yet to be vetted. There, they checked the girls’ papers and confiscated their passports and identity cards. They stayed in the house for a day or two before another Isil smuggler, calling himself Abu Fahad, transferred them to Raqqa.
The girls spent their first days in Isil’s caliphate under lock and key in an apartment in what was then the jihadists’ stronghold city. They were put in the care of a woman handler known as Um Laith — “Mother of the Lion” — tasked with “purifying their Western minds” by instilling the practices of Isil’s hardline vision of sharia law.
In their first weeks in the city the girls were not trusted by Raqqa’s Isil rulers, and were forbidden to leave their apartment without their chaperone. An Isil leader confirmed to the Telegraph at the time that they were being kept together and watched. “Until now we don’t trust them,” he said.
Speaking to The Times from the refugee camp where she is now awaiting the birth of her baby, Shamima recalled asking to be taken to the maqar – the female-only communal lodging for unmarried or widowed women where they believed their old school friend was living. “We kept asking his wife ‘why are we here?’ We want to go to the house of women, we want to see our friend. She didn’t say anything to us and then afterwards we found out it was because they suspected we were spies.”
All three girls were quickly married off. Kadiza is said to have wed a western Isil fighter of Somali heritage, but after he was killed in battle decided to try to return to the UK. Shortly after, however, in May 2016, she was reported killed in a Russian airstrike, aged 17.
Amira married an 18-year-old Australian jihadist, Abdullah Elmir, in July 2016. Elmir, who was described in Australian media as the “Ginger Jihadi”, was later reported by intelligence agencies to have been killed in coalition airstrikes.
Shamima, meanwhile, married a Dutchman who had converted to Islam. For a while, she says, life was “normal”. “Like the life that they show in the propaganda videos. It’s a normal life but every now and then there are bombs and stuff.”
She didn’t witness any executions, but she did see “a beheaded head in the bin”, she told a journalist calmly from the refugee camp on Wednesday. “Yeah, it didn’t phase me at all.”
The young woman who can be heard talking on the interview recording is composed and unemotional. She is asked if it was hard to lose two children. “It came as a shock,” she replies, calmly. “It just came out of nowhere, it was so hard.” It’s why she is “really overprotective of this baby”, she says. “I’m scared that this baby is going to get sick in this camp, that’s why I really want to get back to Britain because I know it will be taken care of, like healthwise at least.”
She talks about her school friend Kadiza, who is now known to have died in a Russian airstrike. “Her house was bombed because underground there was some secret stuff going on and a spy had… they figured out that something was going on so her house got bombed. And other people got killed as well.”
Kadiza’s elder sister, Fahmida Khanam refused to discuss her suspected death in an air raid, or the fate of her surviving companions. Abase Hussen, father of Amira, who was last seen in June, said he hoped his daughter was still alive. “She could always make us laugh,” he said. “That’s how I want to think of her, not what happened after. I hope she is still alive, but I don’t really know whether she is.”
Mr Hussen has said before that he cannot understand his daughter’s descent into radicalisation, telling MPs in 2015 that he could think of “nothing” to explain the change in her. After she travelled to Syria, video emerged of Mr Hussen beside a burning US flag at the front of a rally organised by the hate preacher Anjem Choudary. In June 2015, Amira spoke to an undercover reporter from a Sunday newspaper after 30 Britons were shot dead by an Isil jihadist in Tunisia, mocking the victims. She appeared to be grooming the reporter, giving tips on how to reach Syria and what to bring. Last summer her mother, Fetia Hussen, said she had lost contact with her and feared she had died, but Shamima has confirmed to The Times that she was seen alive last June, along with Sharmeena Begum.
On Wednesday night, Shamima’s sister Renu — who in 2015 said her sister was “young” and “vulnerable”, and she hoped she had gone to Syria to bring back Sharmeena, not to join Isil herself — pleaded with the government to allow her to come home. “She's pregnant and vulnerable, and it’s important we get her out of al-Hawl camp and home as soon as possible," she said.
"We hope the British Government will help us bring her home to us where she belongs.
"I’m so relieved that my sister has been found, safe and sound. We are aware that she has been trying to get out. We lost contact with her for the longest of time. We are happy to know that she is okay.”
The father of Sharmeena Begum told the Telegraph yesterday [THURS] that his family had been left distraught by her decision to travel to join Isil.
Mohammad Nizam Uddin said he had been unable to reconcile himself to her disappearance from home. Speaking from his flat on the top floor of a tower block overlooking London’s East End, the 42-year-old told The Telegraph: “We have heard nothing from her since she left. We do not know where she is.
“As a father I urge the British Government to let these girls back into the country. Please let them come back. I want to see my daughter again. It is terrible she is not here, it is terrible for us.”
Mr Uddin added: “I think they should be allowed to come home. When they went to Syria they were not mature and they had been radicalised.”
They travelled out to Syria together, but as Isil loses its remaining grip on the region, just one of the girls from Bethnal Green is living in relative safety. Taken on a coach filled with fleeing Isil families to the camp in al-Hawl, Shamima is now waiting to deliver her third baby, and to learn of her fate, desperate to return to Britain.
“The caliphate is over,” she says. “There was so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory.”
Her friends would be “ashamed” of her if they are alive and have learnt that she has fled. “They made their choice as single women. For their husbands were already dead. It was their own choice as women to stay.”
Now, she says, her priority is her baby. “I know what everyone at home thinks of me as I have read all that was written about me online. But I just want to come home to have my child. That’s all I want right now. I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.”