Jihadi bride Shamima Begum was just 15 when she and two classmates Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase travelled to Syria in February 2015. However the teenager, who was recently found in a refugee camp, said she didn’t regret her decision but wants to ‘come home to Britain’.
Begum’s brother-in-law Mohammed Rehman spoke of how her mother had wept after speaking with her daughter on the phone, and how the family can understand the anger of people who don’t want the teenager to return to the UK.
He said: ‘The family spoke with Shamima today. It was very emotional. There’s a mixture of elation and sorrow. We are happy that she’s alive but sad that things have come to this. She’s lost two children and put us all through a lot of heart ache. She’s also gone through a very difficult time herself.
‘Shamima’s mother broke down when she heard her voice. Until the interview with her appeared in the newspaper we didn’t know if she was alive or not. So you can imagine, this has come as a shock to us all.
‘At one stage we thought she was dead. There has been no contact with her in almost 2 years. Shamima’s mum just cried and told her to come home. She promised to make her her favourite food. We want her to come back so that she can be re-educated. As a family we can’t understand how her head was turned like this and why she thought going to Syria was a good idea.
‘I can understand why people in this country are angry and don’t want her back. What she’s done doesn’t portray Islam in a good light. But she was only 15 when she went to Syria. We are appealing for compassion and understanding on her behalf.’
Begum is the only known survivor of the three friends from Bethnal Green and her two children died of disease and malnutrition before the age of one as the caliphate fell apart around her.
The schoolgirl claims she lived a ‘normal life’ in ISIS’ capital Raqqa and was ‘not fazed’ by the brutal execution of its enemies, recounting how she once found an ‘an enemy of Islam’s’ decapitated head in a bin.
But with her third baby now due any day and her jihadi husband Yago Riedijk captured, she has decided to quit and now wants to ‘live quietly’ back in the UK and ensure her baby survives with the help of the NHS.
Yesterday security minister Ben Wallace admitted she has the right to return to the UK but they would not help her and said: ‘Actions have consequences. I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state’.
In an extraordinary interview with The Times’ Anthony Loyd, she said: ‘I don’t regret coming here. But I have to think about my baby as well. After my two kids died I’m scared this baby is going to get sick – that’s why I really want to get back to Britain because I know it will be taken care of. Healthcare-wise at least’.
But critics say her lack of remorse proves she is a radical and potential danger to Britain, who should be barred from returning or arrested and prosecuted at the very least.
Dr Kim Howells, a former Foreign Office and Counter-Terrorism Minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said: ‘She sounds to be completely unrepentant, she sounds cynical, she said she wasn’t fazed by the sight of these heads in a bin as she described it. And now she wants to take advantage of the NHS. You can bet your bottom dollar there will be a lobby to get this girl home on humanitarian grounds.’
Nigel Farage said: ‘This woman shows no remorse for her actions, remains a committed jihadist and is totally unsuitable to come into our country’.
Begum has now fled to the al-Hawl refugee camp near Syria’s north-eastern border with Iraq – 200 miles north of ISIS’ last stand in Baghuz, where she last saw her Dutch jihadi fighter husband two weeks ago.
She said: ‘I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago.
‘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’.
She added: ‘I’ll do anything required just to be able to come home and live quietly with my child.’
Britain’s Security Minister Ben Wallace said today the ISIS bride will not be rescued – but will be helped back to the UK if she gets to a consulate in Turkey or Iraq and questioned by police, and put in the dock ‘if possible’.
He said: ‘She’s a British citizen, she has rights. That’s the reality of it. It’s not about me or anyone else saying you can’t come. You have rights. But you know, don’t be surprised by what reception you get when you come back when it comes to investigations and law enforcement’.
Mr Wallace also also warned she should ‘expect to be prosecuted’ at the ‘very least’.
Her family’s lawyer Tasnime Akunjee, who represented the parents of all three girls in the past, today insisted that Shamima is a ‘victim’ and should not be prosecuted for joining ISIS.
Asked what he made of Shamima’s wish to return to the UK, he said he hadn’t spoken to her and added: ‘It’s entirely understandable give her circumstances. My involvement of it was trying to bring Shamima back on behalf of the family but she is doing it herself’.
In an interview where she showed no remorse for joining a terror group – but wants to come back to Britain for the sake of her child, Begum revealed:
• Shamima Begum wants to return to the UK for the sake of her unborn child after two of her children died
• Her fellow runaways also married jihadis – Kadiza Sultana is dead and Amira Abase is with ISIS fighters currently in their final stand in Baghuz;
• Begum says she does not ‘regret’ joining ISIS and was ‘not fazed’ by its executions or when she saw an enemy’s head in a bin;
• Jihadi bride lost two children under the age of one because of disease and lack of food – she wants the third to grow up and ‘live quietly’ with her in the UK;
• Her lawyer Tasnime Akunjee says that she and the other girls are ‘victims’ – and previously Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said the trio would not be prosecuted;
• Security minister Ben Wallace says Begum has the ‘right’ to come home – but will not be rescued from Syria and faces arrest if she gets back to the UK;
Begum said she had a ‘normal life’ with her jihadi husband Yago Riedijk, 27, who she met and married within three weeks of arriving in Syria.
She said: ‘Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, 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 fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam. I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance’.
However the 19-year-old says she does not regret joining the terror group and said she was ‘weak’ for not staying to the bitter end – but now wants to come home.
Up until 2017 ISIS banned women from fighting for them but those who fled the regime said that in the past two years that some jihadi brides had been trained in warfare, using guns and building bombs.
Begum did not say what she had done for ISIS other than marry a fighter and have his children.
She said her husband surrendered to a group of Syrian fighters allied to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and she has not seen him since.
Fellow jihadi bride Kadiza Sultana died two years ago in an air strike, she said, and Amira Abase is still with her ISIS fighter husband but has not been seen since last summer.
Security Minister Ben Wallace today confirmed that Begum ‘has a right to come home’ and will be allowed back into Britain if she presents herself at a British consulate in Iraq or Turkey – but will not be rescued despite being pregnant.
He said: ‘I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state – there’s consular services elsewhere in the region.
‘British citizens have rights whoever they are but if they have gone join ISIS and return to the UK they can expect to be questioned and, if possible, prosecuted’.
He added: ‘Actions have consequences. I think the public will be reflecting on why these people want to return to a country they said they hate’.
Mr Wallace refused to be drawn further on Begum’s case but admitted it was ‘very worrying’ that she had ‘no regrets’ about joining ISIS, which he called the ‘worst terror group in history’.
Times war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who found Ms Begum, told the BBC Today programme she is ‘two things’ – ‘She is the 15-year-old schoolgirl who was groomed and lured to the caliphate, and four years later, with that background, she is an indoctrinated jihadi bride.’
Loyd added: ‘She didn’t express regret, she said she had no regrets, she was calm and composed but she was also in a state of shock – she had just come out of a battlefield, nine months pregnant, many of her friends dead and she’s gone through air strikes and all the rest of it – so I wouldn’t want to rush to judge her too harshly.
‘She was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who made a terrible mistake… and we must do our best to rehabilitate her amongst our own people’.
Today there are calls for Begum to be barred from returning to the UK completely or arrested and jailed if she sets foot on British soil.
But at the time of her disappearance four years ago Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, then Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said if the girls came back they would be treated as ‘victims’ who were groomed online and would not be prosecuted.
Around 800 men, women and children from Britain went to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS – but 400 returned and only around 40 have been prosecuted for terrorism offences.
The majority have been put in the dock using Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which relates to ‘preparation of terrorist acts’ and can be applied to jihadi brides if they can prove they were ‘assisting others’ in preparing or carrying out acts of terror.
Those convicted using this law have been jailed for up to seven years – but the law is being changed to increase this to ten years in prison.
Sir Peter Fahy, former head of Greater Manchester Police, said he could understand why Britain is ‘not particularly interested’ in bringing her back.
He said: ‘If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different’.
Former Met Chief Superintenden Dal Babu said she and her friends were ‘victim of brainwashing’.
Labour MP Harriet Harman said: ‘I agree. 4 years ago she was only 14. Groomed online (I presume) lured abroad to be used for sex, became pregnant, lost babies. CPS will consider prosecution if she’s committed crimes. But UK is her home’.
Jihadi bride Shamima Begum should ‘still be considered a potential combatant’ unless she cooperates with British intelligence, according to a leading security expert.
Will Geddes warned the 19-year-old could be an ‘extreme challenge’ to de-radicalise as she is yet to show any remorse for joining ‘enemies of the UK.’
The counter terrorism specialist, said the expectant mother is now ‘exploiting her British nationality’.
Mr Geddes, managing director of security consultancy ICP Group said: ‘I do find it quite astounding that she feels she is justified to be able to do so and come back to a country she rejected to use the infrastructure that benefited her originally like the NHS that she has not contributed towards for four years.
‘Until recently she was facilitating those who are enemies of the UK – she is exploiting her British national status and there some requirements that she would have to be subject to.
‘Fundamentally, unless she was willing to provide critical information to the UK intelligence services and authorities about the Islamic State operation and its people, infrastructure and current circumstances, she should still be treated as a hostile individual and potential combatant towards the UK.’
The director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Raffaello Pantucci, said the UK needs to ‘tackle the issue head on.’
He said it is hard to prosecute for crimes abroad once they are back in the UK and if a national process cannot be established, an international one may be considered for what is a ‘very complicated and difficult’ issue.
Mr Pantucci said: ‘It needs to be a criminal process – a programme to make sure they disengage from their ideas.
‘It is very difficult for countries to take them back – another solution could be the use of a third location in setting up international court and international prisons for them to go through this process before they return.’
Hanif Qadir, a reformed extremist who now runs the Active Change Foundation, a de-radicalisation project in London, said Begum deserves the opportunity to transform her life and give birth in safety following her ‘naive and childish mistake.’
Speaking from the Republic of Mali, where he is running reintegration workshop, Mr Qadir said: ‘Of course she should be allowed to return home, why should she not?
‘She is as much a victim in this as anything.
‘If you look at why she left to go to Syria and the circumstances surrounding that, I do believe she is not going to be a threat.
Begum said last night she understood why people in Britain would not have sympathy for her but insists that she would ‘do anything’ to bring her baby back to the UK.
Four years ago she arrived in ISIS’ capital Raqqa with her teenage friend and were placed in a home for ‘single women’.
They filled out registration forms and expressed preferences over what kind of fighter they wanted to be in a relationship with.
Within three weeks was married to a Dutch jihadi Yago Riedijk, 27 – a Muslim convert from Arnhem – and she is currently pregnant with her third child – the other two died before they turned one.
Sultana married an American, Abase an Australian and friend Sharmeena Begum, who arrived in 2014, a Bosnian.
Miss Begum claimed she had been living a normal life despite the atrocities – but now wants to return to Britain to bring up the baby she’s about to give birth to.
When asked about why she had not stayed in ISIS’ she said: ‘I was weak’.
Miss Begum and her friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, fled east London in the footsteps of another Bethnal Green schoolgirl, Sharmeena Begum, who had left the year before.
She said each married a ISIS foreign fighter on reaching Syria.
After they moved Amira used a Twitter account with a profile picture of herself clutching a knife while wearing a full veil.
In a bid encourage others to visit she posted pictures of her heating takeaways in Raqqa.
But as the tide in the war turned ISIS lost territory and the regime collapsed.
Miss Begum said her first two children died in infancy due to disease and malnourishment.
Disillusioned, the young woman told how she had fled the final ISIS stronghold fearing that her unborn baby, who she says is due any day, would suffer the same fate.
She conceived the child with ISIS fighter Yago Riedijk, 27, a Dutchman who converted to Islam. The pair married only weeks after she arrived in Raqqa in 2015. Miss Begum admitted she was aware many would want her barred from returning home.
She conceded ‘the caliphate is over’ and had witnessed ‘so much oppression and corruption that I don’t think they deserved victory’.
Miss Begum fled the final ISIS stronghold in Baghuz, eastern Syria, as Western-backed Kurdish forces closed in on the town. She said: ‘I was weak. I could not endure the suffering and hardship that staying on the battlefield involved.
‘But I was also frightened the child I am about to give birth to would die like my other children if I stayed on.
‘So I fled the caliphate. Now all I want to do is come home to Britain.’
Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer who was instructed by the Bethnal Green girls’ families after they ran away, said he was ‘glad (Ms Begum) is alive and safe’.
He told the Press Association the authorities should be reminded of former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe’s position at the time of their disappearance.
‘The position of the Metropolitan Police was that they should be treated as victims, so long as they hadn’t committed any further offences while they are out there,’ he said.
Mr Akunjee said he had spoken to the girls’ families, who had ‘expressed the position that they want time and space to process what’s happened’.
He added: ‘I personally would like to see somebody like her who’s gone through the trauma she had – who’s gone out there as a child – get as much help as she can get and get on with her life and I would hope that for any human being’.
Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali said: ‘At the time, when Shamima Begum and two other girls disappeared and it was feared they were heading for Syria via Turkey, I made representations to the then home secretary Theresa May and the head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police.
‘I appealed to them to work with the Turkish authorities to prevent the girls from crossing the border into Syria.
‘Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the UK authorities, the girls did get into Syria and as subsequent reports suggest, they joined IS.
‘If it is the case that Shamima Begum is trying to return to the UK, it is now a matter for the UK police, security services and the Foreign Office, who will rightly need to consider public safety and our national security in cases such as these.’
She also poured scorn on the Western hostages she had watched being beheaded on videos.
She said: ‘Journalists can be spies too, entering Syria illegally. They are a security threat for the caliphate.’
It is unclear whether she was referring specifically to the British victims beheaded by ISIS, Alan Henning and David Haines, both killed in 2014.
Miss Begum said Amira and Sharmeena had decided to remain in Baghuz. Kadiza was reportedly killed two years ago.
She said she ‘last saw my two friends in June’ of last year but had heard ‘only two weeks ago’ the pair were still alive.
However, she feared that ‘all the recent bombing’ may have killed them. Miss Begum praised their decision to remain.
‘They urged patience and endurance in the caliphate and chose to stay behind in Baghuz,’ she said.
‘They would be ashamed of me if they survived the bombing and battle to learn that I had left.
‘They made their choice as single women. For their husbands were already dead. It was their own choice as women to stay.’ Miss Begum told her story to Times journalist Anthony Loyd.
He found her alone in the Al Hawl camp – a facility for around 39,000 refugees in northern Syria.
The three schoolgirls had initially flown to Turkey after telling their parents they were going out for the day. They later crossed the border into Syria. Miss Begum said: ‘I applied to marry an English-speaking fighter between 20 and 25 years old.’
Kadiza married an American, Amira married an Australian and Sharmeena married a Bosnian. She said: ‘There was a lot of oppressions of innocent people.
‘In some cases fighters who had fought for the caliphate were executed as spies even though they were innocent.’
She said that her husband spent six months in prison after being accused of treachery.
She left her home in Raqqa in January 2017 with him and their first child, a daughter who later died along with her son in the all-round chaos of military defeat.
IS told jihadi families to make their own decisions as to whether to flee.
The couple left together but her husband surrendered to a fighters opposed to IS. That was the last time she saw him.