I met British ISIS jihadi brides inside their prison camp. Shamima Begum was missing.16 July 2020
|Exclusive. By Paul Martin in Camp Roj, Syria.|
Sitting on a plastic chair in a cramped prison camp, her face covered with a black veil apart from a slot for her blue-grey eyes, a young British woman who fled home to join ISIS refuses to talk, then finally breaks her silence.
Fearful for her future, she says all she wants is to come home.
We have entered Roj prison camp, a sprawling expanse of white canvas tents and rickety-looking huts.
Just beyond the barbed-wire exterior, foul-smelling black oil-drilling pumps move slowly up and down like preying mantises, extracting much-needed wealth for this otherwise under-developed war-torn region.
Camp Roj is a strictly-guarded prison specifically for ISIS women – many of whom have come from Europe to join the Jihad. And also for their children, often born in the Caliphate, a self-induced extremist dream that turned into a nightmare. It now brings them nothing but abject humiliation.
They had been told they would be part of a victorious vanguard to march on the West and impose Muslim rule over the world.
They often show hostility to their guards, and have taught their children to pelt them with stones. After all, the children are informed, these are the men who killed your fathers.
Perhaps, some of these jihadi brides are gradually changing their minds.
Hardline jihadi women watch each other for any signs of ‘deviance’. Someone stepping out of line may later face serious consequences — like have her tent doused with petrol and set alight.
Behind a bamboo fence, I catch a glimpse of a woman, fully covered and wheeling two small children, whispering a furtive conversation with a man – probably, I assumed, a Kurdish intelligence officer.
Just beyond the caravan some children are playing happily on blue plastic-bucketed swings on the edge of the camp.
And near a row of toilets, three Western women pulled their toddlers down a rocky lane in plastic crates on wheels.
We are forbidden to go any further, but I later glance briefly into a tent occupied by three foreign but non-Western jihadi wives. They’re wearing rather colourful clothing, which reveals just a bit more of their faces than the Western women’s dark black abayas.
It has two lattice-like carpets on the floor.
Inside our makeshift interview room, the caravan, sits the camp leader Noora Abdo, a Kurd and, she says, “very proud of it”. She taps her chest for emphasis.
She is different from them, she says. For one thing, all her ISIS prisoners are Sunni Muslim Arabs.
Azira has arrived, but refuses to give her surname. We later find out it’s Salim. Her eyes are soft. She speaks good English, and was obviously born in the UK.
Where? She refuses to say.
Gradually she warms up – just a little. It’s weeks after schoolgirl jihadi bride Shamima Begum begged, meeting a British journalist, to return home.
The camp leader tells us she’s been taken to a hospital two hours away. Her baby boy’s life is slipping away.
Now Azira is telling us she wants to return to what the Caliphate considered enemy territory peopled by unbelievers. Britain.
“Yes. I just want to go back,” she says – without using the word ‘home’. What did she miss most about Britain?
A long pause then she says: “Education.” I wonder if she means at university or in some Islamist extremist brainwashing session.
What courses would she take up if she got back to Britain? No comment.
She asks to leave, saying she has a nasty throat infection. Tea suddenly arrives, intended for me and my translator.
I offer my cuppa to Ariza. She declines, saying something cold is all she can drink, with that kind of cough.
When she leaves, smiling just slightly, she refuses to shake hands. Of course.
Next in is Safia. A very similar approach. Are you depressed, I ask. “You should understand my situation,” she replies.
Would she like to go back home to the UK? Or is it still her home?
She finds just the right words to avoid any commitment. “Every human wants the best for herself and her family.”
Does she have a husband and is he alive? “I cannot answer that,” she says.
She tells me me she seldom speaks English to anyone, though “when I occasionally go to the camp shop I hear some English. I keep myself to myself.”
As she makes her exit she sees that I have spread some newspapers on the table, and stops to peer at the faces of some of the dozens of ‘missing’ British jihadi ISIS women. “I don’t recognise any of them,” she finally says.
Then she asks: “Can I please take a newspaper to read?” I say yes, but the camp director says no.
“No problem,” says the departing Safia, who I guess is about 23.
Her surname, the camp commandant tells me, is Saaber. From where? “Don’t know.”
Not all the Western women are so reluctant to talk. Amel, aged 30 or so she says, gives another journalist , fellow-Dane Alan Sorensen, the chance to hear her views — unimpeded, it seems, by fear.
Surprisingly, she pulls back her veil. Soon she’s saying that she was swept away by Islamic fervour when on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 2014 with her new husband, who she had married in Denmark.
One of 140 pilgrims, she recalls, was the son of Abu Hamza. The young man later went into the Caliphate, and died.
( Abu Hamza was the hook-handed Egyptian nightclub bouncer who later became the leader of radical Islam at the notorious Finsbury Park mosque in London – I met him there more than once. He was later convicted of terrorism when extradited to the USA.)
Amel reveals an amazing story. Her husband Rawand Taher had been identified by the Americans as a top commander of ISIS plotting foreign terror attacks, including the huge ones in Paris that killed 130. He was targeted and killed by an airstrike on his car in Raqqa.
Later she married another jihadi, and, as is obvious from the big bulge in her outfit, she is pregnant with their second child.
She harks back to the great days – not in her home country, but of the ISIS caliphate. “In Denmark I was twice attacked while wearing this clothing,” she claims.
“I found my feminine side in Raqqa,” she says. “In Denmark I drove a car myself and studied, but you can not be feminine in Denmark. In Raqqa I found my place as wife, mother, woman and sister. I felt really protected. “
Amel continues defiantly: “We will never feel the same freedom as we did in the Caliphate.”
A British jihadi woman at the camp has lost not one but two husbands to the violent ’cause’ of the Caliphate. Saira Khaled Mahmoud has four daughters from the two dead men. She’s refusing to be interviewed.
Another British woman we would have liked to see, if the one hour’s visiting time had not been so strictly enforced, is Masiumah Abdellatif Begum, now 28.
She has 3 girls and a boy, and her Moroccan husband is also what the American-trained military men here call a ‘a KIA’. Killed in action.
As we leave we are obliged by the guards to delete a photo taken at the exit to the camp. A minute later, two guards race on a motorbike towards our car, Kalashnikovs strapped across their shoulders, to ban us from snapping any photos of the camp from a nearby hill.
Sadly, on the same day, unseen by us, Shamima Begum is being brought back to the camp. First though, she has been given the chance to bury baby Jarrah.
Just one more life extinguished in a zone of misery.