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The London girls lost to Isis: what became of the "jihadi brides"

In 2015, three schoolgirls were photographed at the airport, en route to Syria. Will any of them ever come home?

The photographs were published in newspapers across the world. In one close-up picture, Kadiza Sultana is a smiling, bespectacled girl in a headscarf who does not look older than her 16 years. In another – a grainy CCTV still – she is walking through Gatwick airport with her friends Amira Abase and Shamima Begum, both 15, in February 2015. The final image shows them several hours later at a bus station in western Istanbul. After they set off for the 17-hour trip to the Syrian border, there were no more photographs.

The three teenagers, popular straight-A students at the Bethnal Green Academy in east London (since renamed Green Spring Academy Shoreditch), were on their way to join Islamic State. That Isis was able to appeal to men in the West was already well known, but this was the first instance of a group of young women making the journey together. The “jihadi brides”, as they were described in the press, were legally children but commentators, including Grace Dent in the Independent, called for them to be barred from ever re-entering the country. The finger was pointed at the parents – even as they made desperate public appeals for their daughters to return – then at the school, then at the police.

Sara Khan of the counter-extremism organisation Inspire responded to Dent in an article that argued that the radicalisation process was akin to “grooming”. One month later, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner of the Metropolitan police, announced that if the three girls returned home they would be treated as victims and would not face prosecution.

The girls arrived in Raqqa in the Isis-controlled part of Syria and were married off to fighters, standard practice for female recruits. Footage smuggled out of the territory this March purported to show them in the background, trainers showing beneath their burqas.

On 11 August came the news that Sultana had been killed in an air strike in Raqqa earlier this year. She was 17 when she died. And she had been desperate to return home.

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The Bethnal Green Academy is a partly new building, nestled near the end of Columbia Road, home to a popular weekend flower market. The area is home to Britain’s largest population of Bangladeshis, many of whom are still council tenants in the numerous housing estates near the school.

Sultana and Begum came from this community. Abase, who lived a few miles away in Poplar, was born in Ethiopia. All three were Muslim, as are the majority of the 900 students at the Bethnal Green Academy. Outside the school, a large billboard lists the extensive extracurricular activities on offer and affirms in large letters that it is “an outstanding school”. The three girls were part of that success, and their decision to leave for Syria mystified their families. “They remain at a loss as to why their siblings or daughters would make that sort of radical choice,” Tasnime Akunjee, the families’ lawyer told me.

Friendship played a big role. In December 2014, Sharmeena Begum (no relation to Shamima), who was friendly with the trio, ran away to Syria. She had been deeply unhappy following the death of her mother and her father’s remarriage. It appears that Sharmeena played a key role in convincing her friends to follow. “They were schooled into it by the first girl who’d gone,” Akunjee says. “It’s all about the friendship circle and that bond. The psychology around teenagers is that their friends are everything and their families are nothing.”

The contagion continued after Abase, Sultana and Begum left for Syria. In March 2015, a month after their departure, five other girls from Bethnal Green Academy, all aged 15 or 16, were barred from travelling abroad by a judge in the High Court. Social workers for Tower Hamlets council had raised concerns that the girls might flee to Isis-controlled territory.

It is now well documented that Isis has specifically targeted western women (at least 100 of the more than 800 people who have travelled from Britain to Syria are female), using female propagandists to offer practical advice and sell a utopian vision of the sisterhood on offer in Islamic State. According to Melanie Smith, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who keeps track of British women travelling to Syria, the most common age at which women leave to join Isis is 15. (For men, it is 17 or 18). “They get swept up in the teenage fad – Isis seems very cool,” says Smith. “There’s a sense of adventure: feeling like you want to belong to something that’s bigger than you is a big appeal when you’re that age.”

The online recruiters are prolific. “My sister encountered one of the girls involved in Twitter grooming – she’s tried to add a lot of people at my [17-year-old] sister’s school online,” says Anam (not her real name), a 29-year-old British-Pakistani woman from nearby Stratford. “It’s so easy for young people to become involved in those groups.”

Radicalisation is a complex and poorly understood phenomenon; grooming may have played a role with the Bethnal Green girls, but the group psychology of this close-knit group was also crucial. One of the reasons the case made such a huge impact was that it was the first widely known example of a group of women radicalising together offline. “For some reason, the authorities were very aware men would go in groups but they hadn’t thought the same thing about women,” says Smith.

***

In Syria, out of the glare of the world’s media, Sultana soon regretted her decision to join Isis. Her husband, an American fighter of Somali origin, was killed in late 2015. She was scared. “She simply did not feel safe or comfortable there, she didn’t feel she could trust anyone other than her immediate circle and she didn’t want to stay in that environment any longer,” says Akunjee. Sultana spoke regularly to her eldest sister, Halima Khanom, who is 33 and lives in London. It was difficult for her to convey her fears given the risk of phone calls being monitored by Isis.

Sultana’s family assured her she would not be prosecuted if she returned to the UK, and helped her to plan her escape. The danger was grave. “Isis don’t want anyone to leave and they’re prepared to kill people who try,” says Vajahat Sharif, a lawyer who has represented numerous people who have returned from Syria. “If you are caught, that’s terminal. There are young women and men out there who don’t want to stay, but they face a life and death dilemma. That person has to make their own way or trust people to take them across the Turkish border. It’s particularly difficult if you’re a woman, as women hardly leave the house.”

In November 2015, as Sultana was discussing an escape route with her family, Samra Kesinovic, a 17-year-old Austrian who had joined Isis in 2014, attempted to leave. She was caught and was reportedly publicly beaten to death with a hammer. This terrified Sultana. A video clip broadcast on ITV news after her death shows Khanom talking to Sultana in December 2015 about ways to return home. Khanom asks where her confidence levels are. Tearfully, Sultana says: “Zero.” In a small voice, she asks for her mother.

Sultana never followed through with her planned escape attempt. In May, she was killed in a Russian air strike in Raqqa. (The news was only reported in August when ITV aired its interviews with the family).

Little is known about Begum and Abase’s wellbeing, although their lawyer has confirmed that they are alive. It appears that the three girls’ strong bond did not survive in Syria: Sultana did not tell them about her wish to escape. “We actively encouraged her not to speak to anyone else, including her friends, about this,” says Akunjee.

Many experts say the most effective way to prevent more people joining Isis would be the wide circulation of honest accounts of life under Isis by those who have escaped and survived. But those who have returned usually face prosecution (even if this does not result in a conviction) and cannot speak to the media. “We are being starved of true stories of people who have defected or managed to escape,” says Smith, the analyst. “It’s so powerful to have somebody who says: ‘I was living under Isis control for two years and it was horrific.’”

The number of Britons joining Isis has slowed, thanks to better policing in the UK and a shift in Isis’s strategic priorities. The group is no longer placing such emphasis on convincing people to travel to Syria, instead encouraging them to form cells at home.

Sultana’s family are still grieving their loss. “We were expecting this in a way. But at least we know she is in a better place,” said Khanom, her sister, in a statement. The families of Abase and Begum, and hundreds of others in the same situation, can only wait. “I don’t think these families ever do come to terms with it,” says Akunjee. “They just never will.”

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist