Till Martyrdom Do Us Part: What Created 550 Western ISIS Brides

Social IssuesWomen's Issues

  • Author Marija Carter
  • Published October 9, 2023
  • Word count 3,696

Al-Hawl camp, Syria, 13 February 2019: ‘I am a sister from London. I’m a Bethnal Green girl.’

“In this way it began, the opening moments of the encounter that was to catalyse the UK into a paroxysm of rage, kick-starting a toxic tragedy that burned across the nation’s emotional spectrum, pinballing left and right between fear and fury as it roiled around the arena of public opinion, shapeshifting finally into a panting four-way wrestle as mercy and fairness bounced ropes with vengeance and retribution in a fight to decide not so much what justice might look like, but whether we even cared for justice at all in this instance.” — Anthony Loyd, journalist and war correspondent

On the 17 February 2015, a group of three girls from Bethnal Green Academy in East London, Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum, took a Turkish Airlines flight from Gatwick Airport. Following their arrival in Istanbul, the trio spent a day on the capital’s central bus stop, before being picked up by an arranged smuggler and transported over the border to Syria. The disappearance gathered significant media attention. The girls were at that stage rather universally seen for who they were: young vulnerable teenagers groomed by an organisation the likes of which the world has not seen before: the Islamic State.

The propaganda machine that ISIS was able to construct and spread worldwide was seductive to substantial amounts of disillusioned people. Despite the concentration of Western media on the now notorious, visibly brutal elements, ultraviolence composed only between 8 to 10% of ISIS’s messaging. The majority of its propaganda output has been focused on the creation of the vision of a genuine Islamic state, where the values of Muslims are upheld — an international society based on community and shared purpose. Jihad and bloodshed, while integral to ISIS’s true conation, were forming only a rather fringe section of the group’s public agenda in the months after the declaration of the caliphate on 29 June 2014.

Early sympathisers from the West, such as the Bethnal Green girls, were often members of ostracised communities in their home countries, and therefore both susceptible to the promise of an equal Muslim society, and inherently distrusting of the Western narrative that had excluded them and marginalised them. Media reports of ISIS’s brutality were dismissed when the affected individuals contrasted them with the ‘witness reports’ they were receiving from ISIS’s skilled propagandists, and later, from their peers who had joined the group.

London’s Bethnal Green is an over 50% Muslim and largely immigrant, vibrant and warm yet also notably disadvantaged neighbourhood sitting in the shadows of the City skyscrapers. In 2015, it was especially impacted by the wave of violent xenophobia and islamophobia that gripped the UK and indeed Europe as a whole. ISIS’s promises of an international Muslim utopia successfully exploited this environment and first led astray a classmate of the Bethnal Green trio: Sharmeena Begum (no relation) left for Syria months ahead of them, maintained contact and corroborated the terror group’s messaging. Despite the 16-year-old’s disappearance into the hands of ISIS, authorities were slow to react and complacent at every stage — including, most bafflingly, issuing letters warning parents of Abase, Sultana and Begum, noting the potential radicalisation of their children, however letting the teenagers themselves deliver them, which predictably never occurred.

Following the warranted media frenzy, the British authorities launched an international investigation aiming to locate the Bethnal Green girls. Nonetheless, by late February, the Metropolitan police could only confirm that the trio had reached Syria and disappeared into the ISIS-controlled territory. The children, aged between 15 and 16, were placed in a maqar — a house for unwed women, which they could only leave after being married to ISIS member. Conditions in maqars are gruelling, and deliberately so — they are meant to incentivise the quick ‘distribution’ of women. Only ten days after arriving in Syria, the 15-year-old Begum was married to a 23-year-old Yago Riedijk, a Dutch-born convicted ISIS terrorist. Abase entered matrimony with Abdullah Elmir, an Australian ISIS fighter dubbed the ‘Ginger Jihadi.’ A few months later, Elmir’s death following a drone attack was verified by the British security services, and Abase had to remarry. She maintained communication with her mother through social media channels until she abruptly stopped. Sultana, likewise widowed and then espoused by another fighter, even planned to escape from Syria, yet never proceeded with the plan in fear of ISIS’s brutal retaliation.

Abase and Sultana lived in ISIS-held territory for the rest of their lives: they both died before the caliphate was finally crushed, making Shamima Begum the only surviving Bethnal Green girl.

She had lived in Raqqa, the terrorist group’s de facto capital. Despite speculations in the press, there has never been any evidence that Begum had actively participated in ISIS’s operations. In all confirmed accounts, she had lived ‘a housewife and a mother’ life in Raqqa and faced abuse from her husband — an adult ISIS fighter who had been able to marry her after only 10 minutes of a meeting, had children with her while she was underage, and openly boasted about how easy it had been to make her entire existence conform to his wishes, including most recently for the I’m Not a Monster documentary cooperation between BBC and FRONTLINE (PBS). Following the fall of the caliphate, Begum’s husband had been captured and detained. She was stripped of her British citizenship and placed in a notorious refugee camp where she remains to this day, fighting her case against the British government. She had lost all three of her children.

The story of the trio lays bare several disheartening institutional shortcomings. The incompetence and in numerous instances, indifference of those meant to protect them was painfully obvious in the scores of steps that led to their disappearance. The authorities fell short of adequately assessing the danger to the girls and other populations vulnerable to ISIS’s propaganda. In stark contrast to how ruthless the British Government’s attitude to Begum’s fate is for the crime of being groomed by a terrorist mega-group at 15, its own security services utterly failed to prepare themselves for ISIS’s online empire.

As noted above, the causa principalis of Western citizens joining projects such as ISIS has less to do with religion and more with societal exclusion, frequently stemming from institutionalised and interpersonal islamophobia, xenophobia and racism. Ostracism from the society of a nation of choosing, or, on many occasions, the society the individual’s parents emigrated to, leaves them in a vacuum — unable to relate to their former or inherited identities, yet rejected by the one surrounding them. As Begum, raised in a disadvantaged, rather close-knit immigrant community in London, noted herself in the fourth episode of the above mentioned BBC/FRONTLINE investigation’s podcast: ‘I did not feel Bengoli […] and I did not feel British, because I feel like I wasn’t able to be British, even though I wanted to be.’

Experiencing a sense of isolation from one’s environment is a prevalent feeling among teenagers regardless of their context. The ages of 14 to 17 are a particularly vulnerable developmental period, as individuals start gaining agency over their lives and the ability to avoid detection by their authority figures. As the wish to belong runs alongside the desire to differentiate oneself, children are drawn into seeking cliques, and the exponential rise of the presence of online media in their lives left their parent generation notably more out of step than any previous generation in history. Online subcultures evolve rapidly, and are incredibly difficult to keep up with from the outside — even for experts, let alone for ordinary parents, especially ones coming from characteristically socially conservative backgrounds. Teenagers are particularly susceptible to the influence of online echo chambers: these spaces can represent the only environments in which they feel genuinely understood, as well as enjoy a certain degree of rebellion against society, all from the comfort and safety of their bedrooms.

What then drives an individual from engaging with a group like ISIS online to embarking on a complicated and dangerous journey to Syria or Iraq, is most commonly a previous traveller link. In the case of the Bethnal Green girls, the classmate who allegedly radicalised the trio and devised the plan to join the terror group had already made the journey to Syria. Once she informed Abase, Sultana and Begum of her safe arrival, coupled with tales of the utopian life in the caliphate, their own direct planning began. Along with demonstrating to their peers that passage to the ISIS-controlled territory is possible, the effectuated travellers fulfil an utterly crucial function in the terror group’s campaign of international recruitment: they serve as buffers against the acceptance of reporting of the factual operations and objectives of the group. In conjunction with pre-existing distrust in a system that disenfranchised them, the individuals considering joining such group are more likely to believe their friend on-the-ground in Raqqa that ISIS is not the pure evil it in fact was, over the media. Fundamentally, for the potential foreign recruits, the idea of Islamic State was a conspiracy theory — with some elements of truth and large amounts of fabrication, the rest to be crafted by the viewer.

There exists a popular misconception that ISIS persuaded foreigners to join its ranks chiefly by its well-known high-definition ultraviolence propaganda, such as its infamous execution series. However, while naturally, such scenes attracted wide media attention, ultraviolence, as noted above, composed only between 8–10% of ISIS’s propaganda output. Whilst many Westerners, largely men, had indeed publicly expressed a desire to participate in this facet of ISIS’s existence, it was the rarer cause for which people enlisted. Whereas the most frequently reported on footage had been the execution of a cage burning of the captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, the video that gathered the most views in communities of interest was the Eid al-Fitr celebration. Deleted from YouTube, it can still be viewed around the web. It is clear textbook propaganda when perceived through the lens of ISIS’s true purpose and the ultimate fall of the caliphate. Nonetheless, it is immensely worth noting that it convinced thousands of regular people — inter alia teachers, nurses, engineers, social workers, and indeed A-tier teenage students, to leave their lives in the West and head over to Syria. It shows idyllic scenes, a multi-ethnic community all connected by their faith in Islam, without divisions of class, race or country of origin. This is an extremely seductive message to a teenager that had grown up ostracised and feels like they found their purpose in their faith. The film shows new maternity wards, with a western doctor noting how surprised he was of the highly modern state of the hospital: it could be in London, but it is in Raqqa. It showcases children playing and adults laughing… it has a travel-guide atmosphere. One might well expect it to end with a standard-issue Ministry of Tourism logo or a little ‘get 20% off your hotel now’ banderol. Instead, it ends: ‘wish you were here.’

People, and especially women, in large part joined ISIS for this vision. While many British people might find it baffling that these individuals claim they never known about ISIS’s ultraviolence aspect, never seen its execution clips and did not believe in its expansionist nature, it is valuable to inquire within oneself how many British or American citizens would stand by every action of their national militaries. The invasion of Iraq, which began in 2003 and formally ended in 2011, had been universally perceived in the Middle East as a plain attack on a sovereign state and led to a million civilian deaths, as well as a total collapse of the nation’s infrastructure. The Abu Ghraib torture case, only closed in 2014, featured several human rights violations and war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq — over the same antediluvian Levant plains that ISIS would emerge to daunt a decade later. The records and images are likewise freely available to the Western public. They made media rounds in 2003 when the scandal was uncovered by the Associated Press and subsequently reported to the wider US audience by CBS News in April 2004, leading to a widespread condemnation — including the iconic 6 May 2004 ‘Resign, Rumsfeld’ cover of the Economist, prominently featuring one of the ‘mild’ torture images. A total of 63 people died in Abu Ghraib: 36 casualties occurred due to insurgent mortar attacks, the rest were murdered or died indirectly as a result of the torture they were subjected to. The US initially argued that the mortar deaths should not be noted as a part of the induced death toll, however, the 1949 Geneva Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War requires surrendered captives not be kept at facilities vulnerable to attack, including artillery. The torture that these Iraqis, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, have been subjected to, is what most Westerners would not expect any of their governments to sanction since the times of the Nazis, and the extensive, graphic documentation of these human rights violations can be viewed by anyone at any time. Yet, most of the populace under the NATO umbrella would not perceive themselves as associated with such terror — in fact, for the majority, awareness of it is unlikely, and no one would imply that life in the West is some unending terror of genocide, despite this clearly recorded war crime. It is, in fact, not that hard to relate.

And parts of the Eid al-Fitr propaganda video are indeed true. ISIS did build education centres, roads and hospitals. It operated as a de facto state, with tax systems, social services, schooling and health care and national identity. Nonetheless, its main goal was the expansion of its radical philosophy, and it was universally understood by the state’s agents that this is to be achieved by violent means and at any cost necessary. ISIS funded its mission, from missiles to pre-schools, by systematically targeting non-Sunni Iraqis and Syrians in each new area they succeeded in securing, forcing them out of their homes to exploit their businesses and properties to claim as ghamima (war spoils), and imposing jizya (protection tax) on other religious minorities. In the Eid al-Fitr video, women dressed modestly — in real-life Raqqa, they were subjected to the dehumanising full compulsory black burqa, paired with abaya covering the entire body, and a shield on top of the abaya, along with gloves. Non-compliance was met with physical punishments and sometimes lethal torture.

ISIS committed further war crimes and crimes against humanity in all areas in which they gained control: they forced religious conversions under the threat of death and torture, took thousands hostage, jailed and executed political opposition and any perceived enemies, targeted escapees as exemplary cases and often arbitrarily tortured, mutilated and executed civilians, including journalists and humanitarian staff. The group’s actions against especially the Yazidi population (forced child marriages, enslavement, systematic and widespread murder, the use of rape as a weapon of war) amount to genocide. ISIS did not go only after the flesh, either: it revelled in the destruction of concepts humanity holds most dear — community, family, heritage, cultural fabric… best exemplified in the terror group’s destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Being a territorially expansive organisation first and foremost, ISIS, in addition to the establishment of wilayat (provinces) in areas of interest, dedicated significant efforts and resources to external operations, organising terrorist attacks outside Syria and Iraq both before and after the declaration of the establishment of the caliphate itself. ISIS also sought to exert indirect control over Western actors to carry out ‘ISIS-inspired’ acts, instilling further fear into the Western populace, and seeking to mitigate the involvement of the Coalition in its ‘headquarters’ area of Iraq and Syria. ISIS issued statements providing carte blanche ‘permissions’ to carry out attacks in its name without further instructions. While it must be noted that the majority of terrorist attacks carried out by the group and its lackeys took place in the Middle East and its targets were Muslims, this approach also led to the November 2015 Paris terror campaign, the December 2015 San Bernardino shootings, the March 2016 Brussels Airport bombing, the June 2016 Orlando gay club shooting and the July 2017 Nice and Berlin truck attacks. The UK was targeted especially in 2017, with the Westminster attack, the Manchester Arena bombing and the London Bridge stabbings taking place in March, May and June respectively.

It is estimated that 1200 people outside of Iraq and Syria were killed by ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks. While this death toll is gruesome and unforgivable, we must not forget that this number includes all areas outside of the self-declared Caliphate, and that ISIS primarily targeted Muslims, not the West — in June 2014 alone, it slaughtered 1500 Iraqi soldiers. Its wrath did not stop with non-Sunni Muslims, either: hundreds of Sunnis were executed for refusing to swear alliance to ISIS, for harbouring undesirables of the regime, or for simply being in the wrong time in the wrong place. This is what Begum was referring to in her infamous and rather unfortunate Manchester Arena bombings comment: ‘It is wrong that innocent people did get killed […] but, women and children in [ISIS territory] being killed right now unjustly with the bombings […] It’s a two-way thing really because women and children are being killed in the Islamic State right now and it’s a kind of retaliation.’ It must be noted that Begum had just spent the last 4 years of her life, from 15 to just a day before this interview, speaking only to ISIS sympathisers, seeing death and destruction daily, and burying two of her own children, heavily pregnant with her third. Nonetheless, her core assertion that grave atrocities were perpetrated against people within the ISIS-held territory, and the fact that these events received scant attention in Western media, is not meritless at all.

It was these attacks, however, that led the Western nations to fully embrace what would become the Global Coalition Against Daesh, which encompassed the efforts of more than 60 partner states. The military component of the operation was led by the US. It took five years of fighting on every front — from 34,000 air and artillery strikes to large-scale intelligence collection in the West against potential ISIS sleeper cells, and it cost the displacement of millions until ISIS was finally expelled from the majority of its Iraqi and Syrian territory and cornered in its last Syrian enclave of Baghuz. From there, most surviving men were detained, and many subsequently faced trial for terrorism and war crimes, while women and children were predominantly placed in various forms of internment. Of these, the Al-Hawl camp, safeguarded by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, gained significant attention due to its association with the fall of the ISIS caliphate, including the discovery of Shamima Begum by Anthony Loyd. Originally housing Syrians internally displaced due to the civil war, the camp saw a substantial increase in population following the breakdown of the caliphate.

If the male heads of ISIS were at its peak the world’s most wanted, then Al-Hawl is currently a containment camp of the world’s most unwanted.

The facilities of the camps that ISIS-affiliated foreigners like Begum are held in are unsatisfactory at the best of times — indeed, her third child, a British citizen, had died only few days after birth. The camp faces significant humanitarian challenge in providing basic sanitation facilities, food and water, shelter and healthcare, let alone education and deradicalisation. On the contrary, there are reports of ongoing radicalisation within the camps, as the inadequate schooling system leaves the formal learning and recreational hours of children entirely to the detainees, some of whom are still deeply committed to ISIS. In July 2019, there had been several incidents of children, some too young to have any memory of the caliphate still operating and formally brainwashing, creating make-shift ISIS flags and raising them in the camp. Often, followed by the chant ‘baqiya’ — the Arabic word for ‘remaining’ — a reference to the ISIS slogan ‘baqiya wa tatamaddad’ meaning ‘lasting and expanding.’ There have been physical attacks, tent burnings and even murders of detainees seen as lapsed, kāfir, by their fanatical peers, especially if they made efforts towards repatriation, spoke to the press or stopped confirming with ISIS’s strict female dress code. Indeed, Begum herself had to be moved to another location for safety reasons. In the latest videos of her, she is wearing jeans and a baseball cap — utterly unviable in the depths of the camp, where children were known to throw rocks at media trucks and make death threats towards the Kurdish staff.

As of 15 December 2022, Human Rights Watch reports that over 40,000 people are still held in post-ISIS detention camps. They are a ticking time bomb, and the biggest gift to ISIS’s inevitable resurrection in one form or another.

Therefore, many countries are faced with the dilemmas connected with repatriation of their citizens. The US has adopted a general pro-active policy of repatriation, most famously Abu Dujanah, Samantha Elhassani and Abdelhamid Al-Madioum, all of whom have been subsequently prosecuted on American soil and sentenced. This approach is not only much more fitting of a state wishing to make its citizenship worthwhile — it is also much more pragmatic.

Nonetheless, the UK had been adverse to most attempts. The Al-Hawl camp houses several British women and children, and there is no denying that it exemplifies a complex political issue. Begum and her peers have however been radicalised in the UK. As Anthony Loyd notes, following the revocation of her citizenship, she is treated as if she were always a stranger among the British, just a temporary visitor. But she was not — she was born in London, grew up in Bethnal Green and got radicalised here. She had three children, all of whom were British nationals by jus sanguinis. Abandoning people like her in desert camps, insisting they are not British and that mistakes they made at 15 should doom them forever, only perpetuates the same atmosphere of hostility that pushed these individuals into the arms of ISIS in the first place.

International Law and Global Conflict

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