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.
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.”
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph