I met Tasnime Akunjee for the first time in autumn last year. I was interested in the case of the three girls from Bethnal Green Academy who in February 2015 joined Islamic State (IS) in Syria and, because he was the solicitor representing the girls’ families at the time of their disappearance, I wanted to discuss it with him.
Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase were considered model students and were radicalised without their families’ knowledge. Akunjee, a criminal defence solicitor and expert on terrorism legislation, was approached by a friend at the East London Mosque, where he’d done pro bono work, and asked to represent the girls’ families. He accepted and was quickly drawn into a world of intrigue and danger, travelling to the Syrian-Turkish border as he negotiated to get one of the girls, Kadiza, out of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS.
“Once we established that the girls were in Raqqa, it was a waiting game,” he told me when he visited the New Statesman offices one recent afternoon. “We knew they were going to get married, and the death rate is pretty savage for combatants and that sort of shock might cause them to reassess – and we were right. Within a year, Kadiza realised that what she’d done was not what she wanted.”
Kadiza had a phone and was able to send intermittent messages to her family in London. They knew that her Canadian-Somali husband had been killed and that she was desperately unhappy.
But Kadiza aborted her escape plans after a young Austrian woman who had travelled to Syria to join the jihad was caught while attempting to leave Raqqa and then sadistically murdered. “Isis is a Stasi state, everyone reporting on everyone,” Akunjee says. “After the Austrian girl was beaten to death, Kadiza basically lost her bottle.”
At our first meeting, Akunjee was convinced that all three London girls were dead. He knew that Kadiza had died in a Russian air strike and the assumption was that something similar had happened to Shamima and Amira. Then on 13 February, in a remarkable scoop, Anthony Loyd of the Times revealed that he had found Shamima in al-Hawl refugee camp in north-eastern Syria. She was heavily pregnant with her third child (her first two children had died) and had stayed loyal to IS almost to the end. But now, she said, she wanted to “come home” – a resonant phrase for one who had chosen to live among the true believers of the caliphate.
“When the Times contacted me to say they’d spoken to Shamima, I thought it was some kind of twisted joke. I said, ‘Do you have proof?’ They said, ‘We have absolute proof.’ At which point, I needed to take a breath and recalibrate.”
Akunjee was recently in Syria where he visited the al-Roj camp. Shamima was moved there by the Syrian Defence Forces, a mostly Kurdish militia, after threats were made against her by IS supporters in al-Hawl. Akunjee was within 50 metres of her tent but was prevented from seeing her. Begum, he says, is ill, traumatised and mourning her baby son, who was born healthy but died from pneumonia on 8 March. He blames the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who had stripped Begum of her British citizenship, for the child’s death. “If you could give me his personal phone number I believe I’d probably get arrested because of what I’d say.”
He is determined to bring Begum back to London and believes he will succeed. “What Javid has done is not just morally appalling but fundamentally flawed legally. We trust in the judiciary, which is independent and will apply the law correctly, as opposed to handing politicians the power to decide the fate of people without due process.”
Akunjee is smartly dressed in a suit and tie and has a neatly clipped beard. Educated at the City of London School and the University of Sussex, he speaks slowly in precise sentences sometimes complicated by arcane historical references. As well as trying to get Begum “home”, he is representing a family of Syrian refugees whose 15-year-old son Jamal was bullied at school in Huddersfield – a video of an assault on him was widely shared on social media. They are suing Tommy Robinson, the far-right agitator, for defamation after he traduced Jamal in a series of Facebook posts.
At the end of our first meeting Akunjee said something I’ve been thinking about ever since: “We talk about the attractions of Britain for immigrants – about pull factors – but what are the push factors? Why would the girls want to leave?”
It was a rhetorical question – but how would he answer it now? “Sometimes teenagers operate on the basis of stereotype… They take one look at their family history, who their sisters and parents marry, how they did that, and they may feel they don’t have agency in their own futures.”
IS, too, had special attractions. “They had a benefits system,” he says. “They showed people living in mansions with chandeliers. And Isis learned a lot from Israel about how to build an expansionist state… Israel can go into Palestinian territory and build buildings there, then it will call on people from abroad to join the state-building exercise.”
He continues: “Isis copied their model directly from Israel. You have Israel calling on Jews from around the world… they have an automatic right to be a citizen of Israel. That’s exactly the same as Isis, in the sense that if you’re Muslim and you come over here, you’ll be looked after.” And then the caliphate crumbled.
Editor’s note: The headline on this interview was changed on 28 March from the original version (“Isis copied their model directly from Israel”). We apologise for the offence it caused and for what was an error of editorial judgement.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty