Inside the prison camp of the Isis brides.17 July 2020
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 reluctantly breaks her silence.
We have entered Roj prison camp, a windswept, rain-lashed sprawling expanse of white canvas tents and rickety-looking huts in northern Syria. Just beyond the barbed wire exterior, foul-smelling black oil-drilling pumps rock slowly up and down like praying mantises, extracting much-needed wealth for this otherwise under-developed war-torn region. (Isis, during their reign of terror here, had made a fortune of money from these oil-wells in illegal trade to help fund their highly sophisticated war machine.)
Camp Roj is a strictly-guarded prison specifically for ISIS women – many of whom have come from Europe.
These jihadi brides seem to stick doggedly to their extremist beliefs. Full-body coverings and face-veils are in evidence everywhere we can see.
These hardline jihadi women watch each other for any signs of ‘deviance’ – and someone stepping out of line may later face serious consequences.
But perhaps some are gradually changing their minds.
In front of a white hut near the entrance, a bamboo screen gives the to-ing and fro-ing some privacy from prying eyes.
Behind that bamboo curtain I saw a woman, fully covered and wheeling two small children, whispering a furtive conversation with a man – probably an intelligence officer.
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 get a glimpse inside a tent of three foreign but apparently non-Western jihadi wives. They are wearing rather colourful clothing and are covering just a bit less of their faces than the European ISIS women’s dark face-veils. Their tent has three lattice-like mats on the floor.
As prison camps go, this one does not appear very harsh. Refugee camps for victims of ISIS, just across the border inside Iraq, do not appear much better.
A refugee camp for victims of ISIS, situated inside Iraq, is not visibly better than the Roj prison camp for ISIS women and children inside northern Syria
Inside our makeshift interview room, the caravan, sits the camp leader Noora Abdo – a Kurd and, she says, “very proud of it,” tapping her chest for emphasis. All her ISIS prisoners are Sunni Muslims, whether from Europe or the rest of the world.
Kurds, who are generally moderate and pro-Western, and Arabs generally either distrust our despise each other – a centuries-old rivalry made more toxic by the last five years of war.
Azira has arrived, but refuses to give her surname. We later find out it’s Salim. Her eyes are soft. She speaks good English, obviously born in the UK. Where? “I’m sorry I can’t say,” she responds.
Gradually Azira warms up – just a little.
It’s weeks after schoolgirl jihadi bride Shamima Begum begged to return home with her new baby. Here in the camp the commander lets slip that Shamima and her baby have been taken to a hospital. “The baby’s ill,” she says. We later learn that her baby’s life has slipped away.
Now Azira, another young Brit, is telling us she wants to return to what the Caliphate has long declared enemy territory peopled by ‘unbelievers’: Britain.
“Yes of course I miss Britain,” she says very quietly as we sit inside a windowless white caravan belonging to the camp commander. I later discover that my phone has recorded the conversation.
What did she miss most? I ask Azira. A long pause then a surprising answer. “Education,” she says.
I wonder if she means at university or in some Islamist extremist brainwashing session. I guess it was university.
What courses would she take up if she got back to Britain? No comment.
I ask if she wants us to contact anyone in the UK to tell them where she is and that she is basically all right. She says no, she can already contact “people in Britain”.
Will she talk in more detail when she feels better? “I’ll consider it and maybe another time,” when she is not feeling so sick. “I’d like to go now.”
Does she blame herself for being in this situation? “You came here to join Isis and Isis has lost, so do you take responsibility for what happened? ” I ask her. “I don’t want to comment on that,” she replies.
She feels she has already said more than enough. She asks to leave, saying she has a nasty throat infection. Tea suddenly arrives, intended for the visitors but I offer my cuppa to Ariza. She declines, saying: “Tea is bad for me. I need something cold with my tonsillitis”.
Next in is Safia. A very similar approach. “I’m in a very stressful situation,” she begins. Are you depressed, I ask. “You should understand my situation,” she replies.
“It’s best you ask someone else. I don’t want to say anything. I don’t want to comment on anything. I don’t feel there’s anything to say.”
I ask: Would you like to go back home to the UK? Or do you no longer consider Britain as your home?
She finds just the right words to avoid any commitment. “Every human wants the best for herself and her family. Which human being does not want the best for themselves?”
Does she have a husband and was he alive? “I cannot answer that,” she says – exactly the same answer as I had heard from Azira.
Safia says 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 I have spread some newspapers on the table. There are faces of some of the dozens of ‘missing’ British jihadi ISIS women.
“I don’t recognise any of them,” she finally says. But if there were other British women in the camp she would probably not recognise their faces – because most of the time they are covered up.
Then she asks: “Can I please take a newspaper to read?” I say yes, but the camp director – perhaps fearing there’s a secret message inside the newspapers – says no.
“No problem,” says the departing Safia, who I guess is in her early 20s.
She says she has been to the camp’s medical centre and has seen a doctor there. She complains: “It’s not very well organised.”
I ask: Would you like to go back home to the UK? Or do you no longer consider Britain as your home? She finds just the right words to avoid any commitment. “Every human wants the best for herself and her family.”
When she leaves, she refuses to shake hands. Of course. “For religious reasons,” she says.
Her surname, the camp commandant tells me, is Saaber. From where? “I don’t know.”
The commandant adds: “The British women are very difficult to communicate with. They don’t want to speak – especially to journalists.”
Not all the women in the prison camp are so reluctant to talk. Danish journalist Allan Sorensen has arrived to interview a Danish jihadi wife called Amel, aged 30. She gives her views – largely unimpeded, it seems, by the degree of fear or reluctance shown by the two British ISIS women.
Amel pulls back her veil, on request, but denies any photographs.
Soon she’s telling parts of her story. She was swept away by Islamic fervour, she says, when on a pilgrimage to Mecca in autumn 2014 with her new husband, who she had married in Denmark.
One of the 140 pilgrims, she recalls, was the son of Abu Hamza.
The young man later went into the Caliphate to fight, and was recently refused re-entry into Britain. ( Abu Hamza was the hook-handed Egyptian nightclub bouncer who later became a notorious hate preacher at the Finsbury Park mosque in London. I met him there more than once. When extradited to the USA he was convicted of 11 counts of terrorism and given a life sentence.)
Abu Hamza preaching extremist views outside his mosque in north London.
Amel has an amazing story. It turns out that 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. A few weeks after the gruesome Paris attacks in November 2015, a Coalition missile smashed into his car in Raqqa and killed him.
Later Amel married another jihadi, and, as is obvious from the big bulge in her outfit, she is heavily pregnant. It will be their second child.
She harks back to the ‘good old days’ – not in her home country, but inside the ISIS caliphate.
“We will never feel the same freedom as in the Caliphate. I found my feminine side in Raqqa,” she says. “In Denmark I drove a car myself and studied. But you cannot be feminine in Denmark.
“In Raqqa I found my place as wife, mother, woman and sister. I felt really protected.”
She claims: “In Denmark I was twice attacked while wearing this clothing. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me and my family back there.”
Her main worry though is that she and her children may be returned to the Arab country where her family came from before they went to Europe.
Women in this camp are desperate that their eventual fate will be in the hands of Europeans, as, they think, Arab regimes will be far harsher.
They have seen men and women with Iraqi backgrounds taken away separately in trucks heading for the nearby border. Iraq usually executes jihadi fighters and, it is believed here, the women will regularly be raped.
We hear of a British jihadi woman at the camp who has lost two husbands to the ’cause’ of the Caliphate. Saira Khaled Mahmoud has four daughters from the two dead men. She’s refusing to be interviewed .
Another we would have liked to see, if she had agreed and if the one hour’s visiting time had not been so strictly enforced, would have been Masiumah Abdellatif Begum, now 28. [Her surname is the same as Shamima’s but they are apparently not related.]
She has three girls and a boy, and her Moroccan husband was also (as the military call these things) ‘KIA – killed in action’.
Even more traumatic is the story we hear of a 19-year-old woman who says she married a fighter when she was 13. He was killed – and so were five more men she married in rapid succession.
At the much more chaotic Hawl (or Hol) Camp to the south-east, home to many genuine refugees and hundreds of ISIS women, a French television team has secretly been filming Margerithe, unmarried and apparently a white convert, who has become deeply disillusioned.
“I came to practice my religion, but not the form of Islam they insisted on inside the Caliphate,” she tells them. When she had asked for help to leave the Caliphate, ISIS refused, telling her to get married instead.
She’s hardly a liberal, saying she believes in suicide bombing or ‘martyrdom operations’, and in a man’s right to marry and dominate up to four wives.
She is terrified, she says, that jihadi women will kill her – here inside the camps. She was filmed in January and has not been seen since.
A veiled woman shows that same film crew the charred remains of an area where, she says, a five-year-old child was burned to death.
Hardline ISIS women, she and three other veiled women explain, have set fire to tents or huts, sometimes killing those inside, ‘once every couple of nights’.
That’s because the hardliners believe a woman is considered to be deviating from her extremist beliefs or conduct, or is ‘rejecting the Caliphate’ or showing any signs of ‘un-Islamic behaviour’, like revealing their faces.
“We take turns to stay awake and guard our tents against these women. They might consider me a spy – and that means death. Sometimes they send their kids with a cigarette lighters to set fire to our tents. The tents burn easily,” one woman tells the French TV crew.
These enforcers may be the remnants of the feared Khansaa Brigade, the all-women Islamic police who enforced the strict Islamic rules – or rooted out anyone they considered might be a spy.
We leave we are obliged by the guards to delete a photo taken at the entrance to the camp. Then two guards race on a motorbike towards our car, Kalashnikov automatic rifles strapped across their shoulders, demanding we must delete photos we took of the camp – even from a nearby hill. We still manage to keep two far-off shots.
The guards are understandably nervous. After all, when American and British forces pull out now the fighting’s virtually over, the Kurdish fighters might have to flee an invasions from Turkish forces poised across the nearby border.
Meanwhile, the prisoners and their guards are all awaiting a very uncertain fate.
We glimpse children playing happily on blue plastic-bucketed swings on the edge of the camp – oblivious to their parents’ dire situation.
These ISIS offspring may already have been trained for violence as ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’, in that nightmare killing zone that bred jihadis from a very young age.
That same day a local Kurdish television station records other ISIS women and their small children just as they make it on foot out of the last ISIS stronghold Baghouz.
What the veiled women say as they surrender in the dust-swirling southern plains near the famous Euphrates river is spine-chilling.
“The war is not over,” they tell a reporter filming them for the local Kurdish television station.
“Our husbands will fight and die or flee to the desert,” they say. “But they sent us out so we can survive, and bring up our children for one purpose: to fight the jihad.
“These children will continue the fight till we achieve victory around the world.”
TWO OTHER BRITISH JIHADI WIDOWS
Sa’irah Khalid Mahmud
British of Pakistani origin
Children: Aisha, Zaynab, Khadijah, Hafsah
Suleiman Amin/ Somalia
Both KIA (killed in action)
** Nasimah Abdullatif Begum
Children: Rashid, Riad, Hussein, Safiyah
Husband: Seyfuddine, of Moroccan origin. KIA (killed in action)