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10 February 2023

Our Shamima Begum obsession

Her story has been told and retold in countless newspaper articles, three podcasts and three documentaries. Why can’t we look away?

By Pippa Bailey

There are many ways to tell Shamima Begum’s story. Is she a traumatised victim who was groomed by Islamic State recruiters while still a child, too young to be responsible for her decisions? A grieving mother who suffered the deaths of three children before she turned 20? Or is she a terrorist who willingly travelled to Syria to live under the murderous self-declared caliphate and said the Manchester Arena bombing was “justified”? A traitor who deserved to be stripped of her British citizenship, leaving her indefinitely in a refugee camp she has described as “worse than a prison”?

Whichever version you choose to believe – and perhaps several can be true at once – her story is compelling. The BBC’s I’m Not a Monster, for which its creator, Joshua Baker, interviewed Begum over the course of a year from the camp in Syria, is engrossing and immaculately researched, featuring both big revelations (it claims that the man who smuggled Begum into Syria was a Canadian intelligence officer) and curious little details (she stocked up on mint Aero bars before leaving). It’s the third podcast to tell the Begum story in recent times. ITV’s Shamima Begum: The Blame Game was released in February last year, and the Times’ Bring Me Home (it was a Times reporter, Anthony Loyd, who found Begum four years ago after the collapse of the last redoubt of Islamic State) in November 2020. The BBC has also made a documentary, The Shamima Begum Story (available on iPlayer), using content from Baker’s podcast.

Begum’s story might offer answers to important questions: about radicalisation and terror, and how we might prevent them, and about what can and should be done with those who join extreme Islamist groups. But it is also just one story. According to a report from King’s College London, between April 2013 and June 2018, 41,490 foreign citizens were affiliated with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and 13 per cent of them were women. Of these, 850 were Britons, and 145 of them British women. But it is Begum who attracts such intensity of feeling, whether vitriol or empathy.

What is it about her in particular that so captures the public imagination? “What was there to obsess over?” Begum asks on I’m Not a Monster. “We went to Isis, that was it. It was over, it was over and done with. What more is there to say?”

[See also: Blake Morrison’s Two Sisters: The blurred ethics of memoir]

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When, in February 2015, Begum and two other schoolgirls from Bethnal Green Academy, in east London, travelled via Turkey to Raqqa – then the de facto capital of the Islamic State, declared some six months earlier – the group was at its territorial peak, controlling around a third of Syria and Iraq. Its terrorist campaigns were already dominating front pages: the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack was just a month before the girls’ flight, and in 2014 captives had been beheaded on camera. It was in this context that the disappearance of three schoolgirls became a national event.

In images captured on CCTV as they passed through security at Gatwick, Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, then both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, look like ordinary girls – as, until that day, they had seemed. They were well-regarded at their school; in I’m Not a Monster, one of their former classmates describes them as “quite nerdy, very booksmart”. “You’ve got three schoolgirls… who go together, as children, which is a pretty unique scenario,” said Tasnime Akunjee, the families’ lawyer. “It speaks to a moral panic in terms of children doing other nefarious things. And that’s always going to be newsworthy, that’s always going to capture the imagination, when children do things that are morally reprehensible.” That moral panic was only heightened by the way Islamic State used the internet to radicalise young people.

The girls’ families were unaware of their plans, and had not been informed that, two months earlier, another pupil from the school, Sharmeena Begum, who is believed to have been a significant influence on the trio, had travelled to Syria. Shamima Begum also had contact with Aqsa Mahmood, an Islamic State recruiter from Glasgow who was one of the first British women to join the group and who had a blog on which she published an idealised account of life in the caliphate. That Begum, Abase and Sultana were radicalised and planned their journey without the knowledge of their families spoke not just to fears of Islamic State, but to the dangers of an unfiltered online world (on the podcast, Akunjee says that in his 20 years as a criminal lawyer he had “never seen anything so thoroughly dry-cleaned of evidence” as their disappearance). It was, Anthony Loyd said, “an example of how the fraud of Islamic State had reached out into the bedrooms of bright teenage girls”.

[See also: The “Five Eyes” spies who fought the West’s secret wars]

The other particular part of Begum’s story, of course, is that she survived. By the time a heavily pregnant, 19-year-old Begum emerged from the wreckage of the caliphate in 2019, four years after travelling to Raqqa, she had long been assumed dead. In an interview that year with the BBC she spoke without emotion about the Manchester Arena bombing (“It’s a two-way thing really because women and children are being killed back in the Islamic State right now”) and the enslavement of Yazidi women (“Shia do the same in Iraq”). Much of what happened in the intervening years remains a mystery. While she was of an age to engage in combat, no evidence that she did so has been made public, and she spent much of her time in Syria pregnant. “The reality of the Shamima Begum story is so much has been said,” the I Am Not a Monster creator, Joshua Baker, told me. “There has been so much noise, but what do we actually know? Any of the stuff that should exist on a story of this notoriety, doesn’t.” Into this gap the public projects the very worst they can imagine. There are no easy answers, and there is titillation in trying to understand her, to imagine that you can get inside her mind.

“Shamima Begum was the only one who emerged into the spotlight, on stage, as it were, when I found her that February,” said Loyd. “And she spoke at some length, in an uncontrived way… exactly as I expected a young woman who had been living in the caliphate for that length of time to speak.” Other survivors, who were interviewed later, spoke in a “contrived” manner, to protect themselves legally. But Begum’s first interview was unguarded, Loyd explained. “What she says is not what people might have thought: ‘My god, I made a terrible decision, get me out of here.’ It is: ‘Get me out of here, but I have no regrets.’ And then she espoused essentially Islamic State ideology, in a really unattractive way.” That she was not immediately and straightforwardly regretful only added to the moral complexity of her case. 

It also made her an obvious target for media attention. Baker echoed what Begum said on his podcast: “In Britain, we never really got to have a figurehead for the brutality of Isis, somebody who we can point our anger at – rightly or wrongly – but Shamima Begum, in a lot of ways has become the iconoclast of our rage at Isis.” On 21 February 2019 Sajid Javid, then the home secretary, removed Begum’s British citizenship; she still lives in al-Roj camp, in northern Syria, where she is awaiting the outcome of her appeal against the decision.

For Baker, our continuing fascination with the Begum case is that it “encompasses pretty much every hot topic in British society today”: race, gender, migration, borders. “There’s so much wrapped up in this story, and at its heart it’s probably a question of British identity.” Begum’s story is about a teenager who, disillusioned with her country and seeing no place for herself in a culture she did not identify with, turned to another sort of orthodoxy. But it is also about a Britain that failed to show her that there was a different future available to her, and that made the false promises of Islamic State appear an idyll. 

[See also: What Assad can teach Putin about surviving international isolation]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere