London - The former schoolgirl from London’s Bethnal Green sits solemnly in a bare room in the Syrian refugee camp where she was found hiding this week.
It is almost exactly four years since Shamima Begum, now 19, and two classmates ran away to become ‘jihadi brides’.
Today, Begum is a woman hardened by a forced marriage to a Dutch jihadi fighter, the deaths of two children from malnutrition and illness, and life under the tyrannical Islamic State.
Nine months pregnant with a third child by the Dutch fighter, who has now disappeared, she says: ‘I just could not endure any more. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain. I was frightened that the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on. So I fled the caliphate.’
THE PLOT TO FLEE
When Begum left to join IS with friends from Bethnal Green Academy – 15-year-old Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, 16 – they plotted their departure with cynical precision.
They stole jewellery from their families and sold it to fund their secret half-term flight to Turkey in February 2015.
They lied to their devout Muslim families about why they had to go out that weekday morning. One girl said she was going to work at school, another that she had a wedding to go to.
One of three children in a family of Bangladeshi immigrants, Shamima Begum is thought to have travelled under the name of her sister Aklima, who is two years older, to avoid scrutiny at the airport gates from police over her young age.
SMUGGLED INTO SYRIA
After arriving in Istanbul, the girls took a bus to the Syrian border, where a people smuggler guided them into IS-controlled territory. They were taken to a ‘woman’s house’ and each married off to foreign fighters within three weeks.
In camera phone footage which has emerged from IS, the Bethnal Green trio are shown trudging through a snowy landscape to load their bags into a car.
They slipped into IS territory and disappeared – until Begum dramatically reappeared, having been found by The Times, registered as number 28,850, among 39,000 other refugees at a Syrian al-Hawl holding camp near the last desperate redoubt of the remaining few hundred IS fighters.
She may sound sorry for herself and her unborn baby now. But the truth is that Begum, and her fellow jihadi brides, were well on the road to radicalisation before they left British soil.
Abase had gone to radical Islamic protests in London with her father, and Begum had been in touch with a female IS recruiter online before she left the UK.
All three had attended meetings at a hardline Islamic women’s group which preached the virtues of IS and was an offshoot of the local mosque.
Friends at Bethnal Green Academy have told of how the three girls changed as they became devotees of IS.
The three formed a ‘clique’. They began wearing the hijab to school and talking about the fighting in Syria. They also started to badmouth their non-Muslim classmates, calling them ‘slags’ and ‘kaffirs’, an Arabic term of abuse for an infidel or non-believer. The trio sent their classmates a computer video link claiming that Israelis were deliberately burning Palestinian children in the Gaza strip.
THE IS RECRUITERS
Begum was using her Twitter account to contact a former medical student called Aqsa Mahmood, a 21-year-old who left Glasgow for Syria in 2014 to join IS and marry a jihadist.
The Glaswegian was a prolific blogger and recruiter for Islamic State, praising their terror attacks online. She is still alive and thought to be a leading light in the al-Khansaa Brigade, an all-female group enforcing strict Sharia law rules on women and children in IS territory.
Begum was also ‘following’ 70 other IS terrorists from around the world – both male and female – on Twitter.
But nearer home, there was another influence on Shamima Begum. It came from another teenager, Sharmeena Begum, who is not a relation but a 15-year-old school pal and another jihadi bride.
Sharmeena disappeared from the UK on a Saturday morning in December 2014 flying from Gatwick, apparently on her own, to Turkey before crossing the border into Syria with the help of IS fighters.
The teenager’s family had allowed her to open a bank account with cash gifts given to her to mark the recent loss of her mother, a tradition in her Bangladeshi community. She withdrew £1,000 to fund her flight and told her family she was going to extra school classes on a Saturday morning before taking the flight to Turkey.
Now the police believe that Sharmeena Begum’s successful escape to join IS encouraged Shamima Begum and the other two to follow her.
Sharmeena met up with her three friends at Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London, the evening before flying from Gatwick. She bought a new iPhone and summer clothes suitable for a hotter climate.
Meanwhile, it has transpired that a fifth girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, also planned to join IS as a jihadi bride from Tower Hamlets.
She attempted to leave for Syria on a plane from Heathrow on the same Saturday in December 2014 that Sharmeena left. The girl’s parents alerted the police in time, the plane was stopped by police on the runway and she was removed from the flight.
LIFE IN THE CALIPHATE
As for Shamima Begum today, she is close to giving birth and still exhausted from her escape across the desert to the camp. Incredibly, she claims that marriage to the Dutchman amid the blood-soaked horrors of the so-called Caliphate afforded her a ‘normal’ life.
After arriving in the IS stronghold of Raqqa in 2015, she was put in the ‘house for women’ where newly arrived jihadist brides-to-be waited to be married off.
‘I applied to marry an English-speaking fighter between 20 and 25,’ she said this week. She was the first of the girls to marry, to a Dutchman from Arnhem, while Sultana married an American, Abase an Australian, and Sharmeena Begum a Bosnian.
Soon after, Shamima Begum received her first reality check of life under IS. Her husband was arrested and charged with spying.
‘They imprisoned and tortured him for six and a half months,’ she says. ‘There were a lot of similar oppressions of innocent people. In some cases, fighters who fought for the caliphate were executed as spies, even though they were innocent.’
Sometimes, she says, the wrongly accused were tortured so hideously that they confessed to being spies so they would be executed to end the pain.
Despite the charge against her husband, he was released from prison but was no longer classified as an IS fighter. The two continued to live their married life together in Raqqa, an existence that alternated between normality and horror.
‘Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, with every now and then bombing and stuff. But when I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured opposition fighter on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam. I thought of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had had a chance.’
Her words have all the hallmarks of an indoctrinated recruit of IS, which raises the question of whether she should be granted her wish to return to Britain.
In January 2017 she left Raqqa, with her husband, to live on the outskirts of the town of Mayadin, where she was later slightly wounded in an airstrike that killed another woman and child in the same house.
By the time she had her first child, a daughter, Sarayah, the family had moved south-west along the Euphrates valley moving away from Syrian government advances.
‘I began to think that the caliphate might not survive,’ she says. By now she had her son, Jerah.
‘He was the first to die, three months ago, aged eight months, of an unknown illness linked to malnutrition. There were no drugs at the IS-controlled hospital to treat him.
The family moved on to Baghuz, which is now the last stronghold of IS. Already pregnant with her third child, she then watched as her daughter grew sick there and died, too.
She described how in the past few weeks IS gave instructions to the families of all foreign fighters to make up their own minds whether they would stay in the besieged village to face the bombings.
Begum walked out of Baghuz along a three-mile long road east of the town, where her husband surrendered to a group of Syrian government fighters. That was the last time she saw him.
THE MISSING CLASSMATES
Of the other Bethnal Green jihadi brides, she says that Sultana is dead, blown up in her house alongside her IS fighter husband when the building was targeted by the Russian allies of the Syrian government. ‘I was in denial when I heard. I always thought that if we were killed, we would all be killed together.’
As for the Bethnal Green ringleader Sharmeena Begum and the fourth girl, Abase, they were last heard of alive two weeks ago in Baghuz, according to Shamima Begum’s account from the refugee camp.
Wives and children of fighters were yesterday flooding out of the beseiged village as 100 IS fighters made a last stand against Syrian Democratic Forces aided by the West. ‘With all the bombing, I am not sure they will have survived,’ she said.
Although she wants to come home to safeguard her unborn baby, this teenager says, incredibly, that she does not regret joining IS, and is not the same ‘silly girl’ who ran away from Bethnal Green. She seems largely unrepentant about the IS atrocities.
‘I have to think of this baby. I don’t want him to get sick,’ she says. ‘After my two kids died I’m really overprotective of this one. I really want to get back to Britain because I know it will be taken care of, healthcare wise at least.’
HOW MANY WILL COME BACK?
An estimated 850 people travelled from the UK to support the terror group in Syria and Iraq, including 145 women such as Begum, and 50 of their children. Of the 425 who have returned, most have been men. Only two women with their four children are on the lists collated by the Syrian government.
The true number of British jihadi brides still stuck in the region is thought to be huge.
An indication of this came last June from Syrian politician Fares Shehabi when told BBC radio how fleeing jihadis and their families were leaving collapsing IS strongholds and being driven on buses by the Syrian authorities to camps – like the one in which Begum now finds herself – further north near the Turkish border.
He says of the families: ‘When they were getting on the transport, we collected the information from 280 British passports. They are heading to the UK. They are Britons hoping to go back.’