The parents of the Bethnal Green girls – as we used to call them before two were killed, leaving only Shamima Begum as the media’s jihadi bridezilla – knew from the start that something was off.
After the girls ran away from their homes in east London in February 2015 and turned up in Syria with the Islamic State, the authorities dissembled at every turn. The school, the police, the security forces who had been monitoring the girls’ communications with IS recruiters – every institution responsible with their protection put forward tales to explain how three working-class girls aged just 15 and 16 had made their way out of Britain and navigated their way across multiple national borders to the most dangerous war zone on the planet.
To the parents, the authorities’ explanations for why the girls hadn’t been stopped didn’t add up. They believed their daughters had been assisted in leaving, under the very noses of the authorities, who were occupied in trying to cover up what they claimed were oversights. In early March of 2015, news broke that seemed to confirm their suspicions – only to be swept aside until this week.
Turkish officials claimed the man who had met the girls in Istanbul and smuggled them into Syria was a Canadian intelligence asset. Canadian media advanced the story based on Turkish intelligence reports, suggesting that Mohammed al-Rashed was a double-agent acting as an IS people-smuggler, ferrying British nationals into IS territory and relaying their identities back to the Canadians. If the Turkish authorities’ account was to be believed, an agent with ties to Canada had smuggled three British girls into a war zone.
The story died quickly, though. Western sources derided the Turks’ claims, the Bethnal Green girls disappeared into clutches of IS, and British columnists chided the police for wasting time on these willing “in-house whores” for IS, demanding that the authorities turn their energies back to the safety of “our girls”. Khadiza Sultana, still believing herself to be a British girl who made a horrific mistake, sought to return home, but was killed in an airstrike on her Raqqa building in 2016 before she could escape. Amira Abase, fully brainwashed, stayed willingly and was reportedly killed in fighting as the caliphate collapsed at the end of 2018 or early 2019. As groomed and trafficked teenagers, their deaths are forgotten, viewed as a tragedy mainly by their families.
The only figure who remains is the lone survivor, Shamima Begum, whose fate may be upended by the details that have emerged this past week. A new book about the Five Eyes intelligence alliance cites western intelligence sources who purport to back up the involvement of a Canadian intelligence asset in the girls’ trafficking. The writer, Richard Kerbaj, notes that al-Rashed told his handler about the girls only after they had crossed the Syrian border, when it was no longer possible to stop them, but claims Canada asked Britain to cover up its role in the operation and that British authorities went along. Canada announced an investigation into the allegations on Thursday, while the British government has said it does not comment on security matters.
While all of this was allegedly concealed, Begum stood little chance of making it back to the UK to face legal proceedings. From the moment she had the misfortune of encountering a British journalist in al-Hawl detention camp in early 2019, Begum became the exotic object of a dark media fascination. With two of her children dead and heavily pregnant with a third, a traumatised Begum suffered through multiple interviews with often aggressive British journalists. She sat through them while pregnant, after she gave birth, and after her baby boy died of pneumonia at three-weeks-old. She appeared on front pages as a black-wreathed monster: glassy-eyed, unrepentant. Days later, the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped her of her British citizenship. The news reached Begum through a British journalist, who handed her the minister’s letter announcing her new stateless status and filmed her stunned, humiliated reaction as she read.
During that delicate time, the Home Office’s decision was cushioned by the media construction of Begum as a monster. A figure worthy of no understanding, in coverage that riled up hateful racial prejudice, premised on the sentiment that because she wasn’t white and therefore alien, what right did she have to anything beyond contempt? Access to her was tightly controlled by Kurdish authorities, who appeared to be acting on orders from western commanders in the global coalition against IS. When I travelled to al-Hawl and asked to meet her, a Kurdish official told me with some embarrassment that he’d tried repeatedly, but the answer for me was no. For the Daily Mail, it was yes.
Since being stripped of her citizenship by the Home Office, Begum has petitioned the courts to be allowed to return to the UK to appeal that decision. Those efforts have so far failed. The supreme court, while accepting that Begum could not lodge a fair and effective appeal from north-east Syria, has said it does not follow that she should be brought home. But because trafficking is a key point in Begum’s case, the new revelations could significantly alter her prospects at her next court hearing in November.
Two things stand out in what has emerged this week. The first is that the government stripped Begum’s citizenship, exiling her from any prospect of due process, without any public acknowledgment or investigation into the role western intelligence played in her recruitment to IS. Britain and Canada must come forward and fully explain. Both countries lead the pursuit of feminist ideals on the world stage, but have held the hardest line on repatriation of their women and children from Syria of any countries on Earth.
The second is the overbearing role of the press in shaping Begum’s fate. From the start, British journalists covering her story have served as judge and jury. They have travelled in and out of detention camps, interviewing a prisoner who has never been permitted to meet with lawyers. They have at times gleaned information relevant to her legal team, and elected not to share it. Even this week, when the media for the first time calls the Begum case a scandal, advocates for her rights and demands answers from the government, it is still seeking control of the narrative.
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