By Alice Brooks
Shamima Begum left the UK five years ago to join the Jihad in Syria. Last year, she was found by The Times’ war correspondent, Anthony Loyd in the al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria. She was nine months pregnant with her third child and attempting to return to the UK.
After losing her first appeal for reinstatement of her British citizenship, Begum said ‘my whole world fell apart’ but to many, it would seem that Begum is receiving her punishment for leaving the UK with the intention of joining an extreme terrorist organisation. However, to others, this is a girl who was groomed, brainwashed and has spent years living in complete fear and danger.
Five years ago, she was a 15-year-old girl about to sit her GCSEs and living with her family in East London. We saw pixelated images and CCTV footage of an innocent child carrying bags through an airport; she’d been caught up in one of the most perilous organisations in the world. She was a victim and to many it was heart-breaking.
Years later, seeing her as an expectant mother living in the refugee camp, it hit a little different. She no longer felt like an innocent child at the hands of the Islamic State, but someone who made the decision to join and appeared hardly remorseful for her actions.
In an interview with Sky News after being found in the camp, Begum described her life living under Islamic State law: ‘At first, it was nice. It was like how they, you know, showed it in the videos.’ However, it quickly changed… She and her children were starving and were forced to sleep on the streets. They had no choice but to keep ‘moving and moving’ to stay safe. They had no access to medical care and, ultimately, this led to both her children passing away from illness.
Despite these unimaginable conditions, when asked by the Sky News reporter if she started to have second thoughts about her decision, Begum responded with ‘only at the end when my son died. I realised I had to get out for the sake of my children’. Later, she confirmed again that it was only at the end of her time living under Islamic State that she regretted her actions.
But how did a young girl from East London get caught up in an extremist organisation in the first place?
The Bethnal Green Trio (Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana) were contacted on Twitter by Aqsa Mahmood only a week before they embarked on their travels. Mahmood is a Briton from Glasgow, dubbed as one of the terrorist group’s most successful female recruiters, who fled to join ISIS in November 2013. She was able to provide insight into the practicalities of the journey, helping the teens to flee.
Knowing now the influence that Aqsa Mahmood had on these teens, it’s clear that Begum and her friends were victims of grooming and there is no doubt it would not have ended there. Begum spent three years living under the control of the Islamic State – three years of being brainwashed into thinking terrorism is acceptable – so it can only be expected that it had some sort of impact on the type of woman she has grown into. This isn’t to say that what she has done is right, but the trauma of grooming would have played a huge part in her radicalisation and should be taken into account during her appeal process.
Hundreds of young people are targeted in the UK every day. One study by the NSPCC said there has been ‘over 5,000 online grooming offences recorded in [the last] 18 months’ – and these are the instances where people have been comfortable to report. Data revealed that out of these some 5,000 cases, 4 in 5 victims were over the age of 11, making Shamima Begum a typical target.
It is important to remember that children are influenced by everything they see around them. They grow by learning from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. Because of this, they are easily manipulated into believing what is right and what is wrong. But with something so extreme as terrorism, how do we learn from the mistakes of others? Young girls have been known to make the journey to join the Islamic State before, but usually, we never hear anything of them again. For Begum, this meant she never would’ve truly known the consequences of her actions before making that leap.
Many across social media made the comparison to them at the age of 15, saying they wouldn’t have made the choice that she did. But in an interview with Sky News, Begum makes reference to various grooming tactics used by the Islamic State that tempted her to join. In this interview, she mentioned videos that promote the benefits of joining the organisation. Begum admitted that she was interested when the videos said women would be married off, live as a housewife and raise children.
She was a child who fell victim to grooming and due to this, she made the decision to leave home and marry someone she had never met. For her, terrorism had nothing to do with it – she had a desire to feel needed and wanted, and the Islamic State took advantage of that. We cannot blame her for her actions, we should blame those who manipulated her. All we can do now is support her in finding a way out.