- Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old British woman who fled London to join ISIS in Syria four years ago told The Times of London that she wants to go home.
- She described living in a boarding house for women in Raqqa while waiting to be married, and described life under ISIS as “normal.”
- Begum escaped the town of Baghouz, considered the last bastion of ISIS power in the region, two weeks ago and is now living in a refugee camp in Syria.
- Britain’s security minister said that anyone in Begum’s position would have to find their own way out, and have to face investigation and potential prosecution if they returned to the UK.
A British student who fled her London home to join ISIS in Syria four years ago is now asking to return home, even as the UK said it would not send troops to rescue her.
Shamima Begum, now 19 and nine months pregnant, fled the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz two weeks ago in the hopes of protecting her unborn child, she told The Times of London’s Anthony Loyd.
Begum is now living in the al-Hawl Syrian refugee camp, in northeast Syria, which holds some 39,000 other people.
Baghouz is the last bastion of ISIS’s territorial power in Syria and Iraq. More and more people are now escaping the area as Kurdish fighters, backed by the US and UK, closed in on the region with weeks of intensive bombing.
Begum told The Times that she walked out of Baghouz two weeks ago, at dawn, where her husband – a 27-year-old Dutch convert to Islam – surrendered to Syrian fighters. That was the last time she saw him, she said.
Her journey from schoolgirl to ISIS wife
Begum fled her home in Bethnal Green, east London, at age 15 alongside two schoolmates in February 2015. They told their parents they were going out for the day, then took a plane from London Gatwick Airport to Turkey, before crossing the border to Syria, the BBC reported.
After arriving in Raqqa, Syria, she stayed at a “house for women” to wait to be married, The Times reported.
“I applied to marry an English-speaking fighter between 20 and 25 years old,” Begum told the newspaper. Ten days later she married Yago Riedijk, the Dutchman.
Her schoolmates, 15-year-old Amira Abase and 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana, were married to Australian and American men respectively, The Times reported. Sultana reportedly died in an airstrike in Raqqa in 2016, while Abase’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Begum had two children with Riedijk – a boy and a girl – but they both died of illness within two months of each other late last year. Both were under two years old.
She told The Times it was her grief at her children’s deaths, and urge to protect her unborn child, that spurred her to escape Baghuz despite her husband’s wishes to stay.
Begum told the newspaper: “I’m not the same silly little 15-year-old schoolgirl who ran away from Bethnal Green four years ago. And I don’t regret coming here.”
“When I saw my first severed head … it didn’t faze me at all”
Begum said she lived a “normal life in Raqqa” peppered with various atrocities of the war on ISIS.
“Mostly it was a normal life in Raqqa, every now and then bombing and stuff,” she told The Times.
“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she said, using a term that ISIS converts referred to people fighting the group.
“I thought only of what he would have done to a Muslim woman if he had the chance,” Begum said.
Listen to an extract of The Times’ interview with Begum here:
What happens if she makes it home
Ben Wallace, the UK’s security minister, declined to comment on Begum’s individual case but said on Thursday that anyone in her position could be questioned, investigated and prosecuted for terrorist offenses if she returned home.
He also made clear that the government would not send troops into the region to rescue her. “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state,” Wallace told the BBC’s “Today” radio program on Thursday.
He added that because the UK doesn’t have a consulate in Syria, anyone in Begum’s position would have to find help elsewhere in the region.
“We recognise that there are children involved in this who had no choice of being out there – they were born out there or whatever – but ultimately what we have to do is protect the public,” Wallace told the “Today” program.
“People who went out there as amateurs are now professional terrorists or professional supporters of terrorism and we have to make sure we mitigate that threat should they come back.”
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