British teenagers Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum at Gatwick Airport, fleeing their life and everything they knew. Picture: HO / METROPOLITAN POLICE / AFP
British teenagers Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum at Gatwick Airport, fleeing their life and everything they knew. Picture: HO / METROPOLITAN POLICE / AFP

Call that revealed schoolgirl’s fatal mistake

Sharmeena Begum was your typical 15-year-old British schoolgirl - until one day in December 2014 when she left her East London home, went to the airport and made the biggest mistake of her life.

This an edited extract from Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni (Scribe $32.99)

****************

Sharmeena's father was surprised she had not yet returned home. The rain spattered against the windows and he imagined her without an umbrella, perhaps slipping into the mosque on the way.

Finally, as he was preparing to leave for work at the restaurant, he rang her mobile. It went straight to a message in a foreign language.

He called the police. A few hours later, they told him the language was Turkish and that it was likely Sharmeena had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Later, scanning her mobile phone bill, he could see that she had spent several days in Turkey before crossing into Syria - days during which the police were aware of her intention.

He would wonder why the British police had not co-ordinated with Turkish authorities to stop his teenage daughter from crossing the border.

Two days later, her friends came to visit him. Kadiza, Amira, and Shamima sat in a row on the sofa, their innocent eyes staring at the fleur-de-lis pattern on the brown carpet, seemingly bereft at the peculiar vanishing of their best friend.

Sharmeena's father quizzed them: "Come on, you guys were so close."

But they swore up and down they knew nothing. "Really, Uncle, we had no idea. She was always on her phone. We kept asking her what was going on, but she said she'd tell us later."

Two weeks later, Sharmeena called her father. "I'm happy here. I went by my own decision. Don't worry about me, I'll be OK," she said.

He asked where she was, insisted that he would come and get her, no matter what. "No, you can't come here, Baba," she said, tearful.

Her broken voice made him cry too.

 

Sharmeena Begum, a British schoolgirl who fled home to join jihadis.
Sharmeena Begum, a British schoolgirl who fled home to join jihadis.

 

Another of the girls, Shamima Begum with her baby boy in the al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria.
Another of the girls, Shamima Begum with her baby boy in the al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria.

 

At Bethnal Green Academy, where Sharmeena went to school, administrators called the girls - Kadiza, Amira, and Shamima, along with four others - into the office to meet with counter-terrorism police.

They were asked to answer questions about their best friend's disappearance and to give evidence without their parents present.

Were they criminals? Would they be put in prison? The girls, threatened and nervous, focused on speeding up their own departure and ensuring that no one got scared and ducked out of the plan.

The police handed them letters to give to their parents. The girls, of course, pocketed them.

The girls grew sloppy with their homework - until then always reliably completed - but their teachers didn't notice.

Because the school had only called the girls' parents to say that Sharmeena had "gone missing," leaving out the crucial "to join IS" bit, their families had no reason to suddenly grow watchful - to check whether their daughters were doing their homework or to start monitoring their social media.

Amira's persona on social media, posted under UmmUthmanBritaniya and until then mostly concerned with fashion, soccer and school, pivoted to talk of politics and religion.

The four teens' stories are chronicled in a new book Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS. Picture: Supplied
The four teens' stories are chronicled in a new book Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS. Picture: Supplied

She and Kadiza, her bookish friend who excelled at school, shared images of injured Muslim children in Syria and also Myanmar, where the plight of Rohingya Muslims - which the world would finally notice in 2017 - was already a focus of online Muslim activism.

Amira's tweets reflected genuine distress and bewilderment at popular culture, which seemed to construct a world in which Muslims were the perpetual aggressors, never the victims of violence.

Threaded through all this nervous, intense religious political banter was a Thousand and One Nights fantasy of what the East might hold in store for a good, pious Muslim girl whose heart beat against injustice.

There were memes of an AK-47 twinned with a crimson rose, a bullet-riddled building in the background, with ornate script like a wedding invitation: In the land of Jihad, I met you O my dear Mujahid.

Amira posted images of camels trudging through a glowing vermilion sandstorm and Moorish palaces set against the moonlight.

She became a chronicler of brooding sunsets ("Can't stop taking pictures of the sky") and assumed the breathless tone of a Victorian woman trying to express her desires chastely; she tweeted a picture of baby clothes, an abaya-clad woman clutching a bouquet of roses

("These are so nice I want some"), handsome lion after handsome lion, and her disappointed realisation that "honeymoons are haram (forbidden), what".

She started peppering her English with Arabic expressions and posted photos that showed her friends in London wearing black flowing robes. "Our abaya game is strong," she wrote.

Amira wondered whether "nose piercings are Haram", said she was "Connnnfuuuusseeedddd," and finally crossed the aesthetic line after which, for any brown girl with dark hair, there was no turning back: "The Prophet (PBUH) cursed those who pluck their eyebrows."

Amira, Kadiza, and Shamima were regularly spending time at the East London Mosque; the turquoise carpet of the women's prayer room often figured in the backdrop of their photos.

Any counter-terrorism investigator reading Amira's Twitter account in December 2014 would have immediately realised what was going on: a series of interests, inferences, and views that, taken in combination, reflected a teenager being cultivated by savvy recruiters with one foot out the door to Syria.

Each post and tweet and image was a snapshot of her state of mind. Anyone reading her Twitter account would have also been reminded that she was still a British child: "Vans: yes or no?" "Chelsea forever Chocolate waffles, revision is killing me, this is Westfield (mall) right now", "Picking your A levels is the hardest thing ever", "my new socks are so nice I want to cry", a photo of a tower of highlighter pens that she and Kadiza built together while studying.

Anyone reading her Twitter account would have seen her announce, in late January 2015, her imminent departure: a selfie of her feet in black Converse, wearing flowing black robes, with the caption "Waiting …"

In a page torn from a calendar, the girls scrawled a list of items to buy before leaving: bras, a mobile phone, an epilator, make-up, warm clothes. They listed the prices of these items.

In the week before they left, their social media chatter reflected glaring signs of growing unease. "I feel like I don't belong in this era," Amira wrote on Twitter.

Three days later, she posted a photo of the three girls, swathed in black abayas, their backs to the camera, with the caption "Sisters," and in all caps."

The final night, Kadiza insisted her niece, just a few years younger than she, come over for a sleepover. They danced around in their pyjamas and cuddled on the couch. On the eve of their departure, Kadiza, Amira, and Shamima were still very much teenage girls.

The next day, February 17, 2015, they told their respective families they were going to the library.

Instead they travelled to Gatwick Airport and boarded a Turkish Airlines flight bound for Istanbul.

In the public imagination, the girls died for the first time in the blurry CCTV images captured at Gatwick Airport. The photo that later blazed across the media was actually a montage of three images, making it appear as though the girls had stepped through the airport's security detectors at once, a synchronised gliding into the twilight world that awaited them.

Their appearance was haunting: Kadiza in skinny jeans and a preppy white-collared shirt paired with a grey sweater; Shamima with a jaunty leopard-print scarf; Amira in a canary-yellow top, black pants and white trainers.

They looked like young students off on a cosmopolitan adventure, perhaps their first Eurostar to Paris.

For the next four years, no images of them were seen in public. They were as good as dead, even if they were not.

It was early evening on February 17 when they arrived at Istanbul's Bayrampasa bus station, but their bus down to the Syrian border would not leave until the following afternoon, so the girls settled in for what would be their final stretch of time in the Land of Disbelief as they had come to think of it.

Shamima gave an interview with the BBC, begging to be allowed to return to the UK after the death of two of her children. Picture: BBC
Shamima gave an interview with the BBC, begging to be allowed to return to the UK after the death of two of her children. Picture: BBC

Eight hours later, after the bus ride, they filed out into another snowy landscape, looking for the man who was supposed to greet them.

"John" spoke good English and hurried them into a waiting car. They didn't notice he was filming them on his phone.

Turkish authorities later arrested "John" and said he was a Syrian asset working for Canadian intelligence, documenting the names and passport photos of the hundreds of Westerners he shepherded across the border.

As soon as he got behind the wheel, he began speeding into the darkness towards the border. The girls looked at each other with excited eyes. Finally, they were close.

Of the four school friends, only one, Shamima, is confirmed to still be alive and living in a refugee camp. Kadiza was reportedly killed in a Russian air strike, while Sharmeena and Amira have been listed as "missing" since February 2019.

This an edited extract from Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni (Scribe $32.99)


Couple welcomes rainbow baby to the world

Couple welcomes rainbow baby to the world

Andrew and Kate Smith are among the many parents to welcome new life

Easternwell completes mud tanks for new rigs

Easternwell completes mud tanks for new rigs

The mud tanks were designed by the company’s engineers.