‘I was groomed’: Shamima Begum insists she ‘didn’t hate Britain’ when she fled to Syria – and now wants to face trial in UK
Written by Hit Music Radio News on 21/11/2021
Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl who fled to Syria and joined IS, has told Sky News she was groomed by friends and older men she met online before joining the terror group.
Speaking from a prison camp in Syria, Begum said she wanted to go on trial in the UK and invited British officials to question her in prison.
And she said that when she left the UK in 2015 she “didn’t hate Britain”, but hated her life as she felt “very constricted”.
In a wide-ranging interview, Begum spoke about her experiences with Islamic State and life in Syria.
“Can I keep my mask on?” Shamima Begum asks before the interview starts. “I’m looking ugly today.”
Begum now speaks with a soft American twang and little trace of her east London upbringing.
She wears yoga leggings, a pink sweatshirt, black baseball cap and a small handbag across her chest.
In almost any other context, she would be utterly unremarkable, but this is a prison camp in northeast Syria and Begum, now free of her strict black Islamic State dress, remains a captive of her notorious past.
She left home in London aged 15 for the promise of paradise, instead she found “hell, hell on Earth”.
Begum rejects accusations that she carried out atrocities as part of IS as “all completely false”.
“I’m willing to fight them in a court of law but I’m not being given a chance.”
She wants to do that in Britain but expects to go to prison even though the only crime she admits to committing is travelling to Syria itself.
Begum now believes she was groomed for “weeks and weeks and maybe even months and months. It wasn’t just a decision I made very quickly, it was a decision I thought about for a while.”
“I didn’t hate Britain, I hated my life really,” she said. “I felt very constricted, and I felt I couldn’t live the life that I wanted in the UK as a British woman.”
There is a childlike shyness to her, still. She rarely makes eye contact as we talk, often looking downwards and away; she interlinks her hands down by her waist, unconsciously closing her body a little as she answers my questions.
Perhaps she is a good actress, turning it on for the camera, but my instinct is that she is every bit as young and naive as you might expect of her 22 years. Naive, but not necessarily innocent.
Begum and I walk around al Roj camp together – mud and sand streets lined by white tents provided by the UN.
Begum is worried about recent fires, scared that her high profile will make her a target for inmates wanting to make a name for themselves.
“For a long time it [the camp] wasn’t violent but for some reason it’s become more scary to live here.
“Maybe the women have got tired of waiting for something,” she reasons.
We talk about her family – she misses them but doesn’t currently speak to them: “I don’t think they failed me, in a way I failed them. When the time is right, I want to reconcile.”
I ask her about her future: “It’s hard to think about a future when everyone tells you that you’re not going to go back.”
And she brings up her Dutch husband, the father of her three dead children, who fought for Islamic State and recently spoke about their “beautiful life” together.
Are they still officially married? “Yes.”
Does she sympathise with him? “No.”
Does she miss him? “No.”
Begum tells me that she rarely watches television but does have a stack of books in her tent, her favourites are by the Afghan author Khalid Hosseini. “I re-read the Kite Runner but I don’t know why people keep giving me books about war.”
By herself, she eats dried noodles, but is “having friends round to her tent for supper tomorrow night”. She won’t cook herself, instead she will buy it in from another woman on camp.
“I have hopes and dreams, things I want to do, to see,” she says, but won’t expand when I push her.
One of her friends, a Dutch prisoner called Hafedda Haddouch, tells me Begum often hides away in her tent for weeks. But Begum insists she’s not suicidal, when I ask her.
The small group of women are clearly Shamima’s support. They giggle and pose for photos, as vain as you would expect of anyone that age.
For some, Begum is a cause célèbre, unfairly imprisoned without trial and an example of a heartless Conservative government. For others, she is a terrorist, who still poses a threat to national security and should never be allowed back into the country of her birth.
Such is the visceral hatred of many in that quarter, you wonder whether a return to the UK would be wise at all for Begum.
Bangladesh, the country with which the UK claims she held dual-nationality, has rejected any association with her.
“There is no Plan B,” is her answer when I ask what she will do if the British government doesn’t reverse its position and reinstate her citizenship.
Have any British officials or lawyers visited her in prison? “Never” she claims.
Her opinion towards the media is conflicted – she blames past interviews and reporting “100%” for her current limbo, but also believes a high profile remains her only hope of release. There’s probably some truth in both those positions.
Almost a third of Shamima Begum’s life has now been lived in Syria. She is being held in prison, for an indeterminate amount of time, but hasn’t yet stood trial. That much is fact.
If she had been repatriated the day the caliphate fell, she might already be some considerable way through a guilty sentence, but the British government decided she was a risk to national security, a decision the Supreme Court upheld.
She has been disowned by the country she grew up in, cut off from the family she grew up with, and is now part of a prison population that is becoming an increasingly unsustainable burden on the Kurdish authorities who guard them.
Shamima Begum is the woman that nobody wants, and she knows it. When she closes her eyes at night she says she is haunted by “my children dying, the bombings, the constant running, my friends dying”.
Begum has already been judged, albeit only in court of public opinion, and for now, she is going nowhere.
The Shamima Begum interview was produced by Andrew Drury and Zein Jaafar and filmed by Jake Brittan.
© Sky News 2020