Shamima Begum: radicalised or exploited?

December 13, 2022

Photo by Ahmed Akacha, from Pexels

Jordan (name changed) examines the devastating impact of radicalisation on young people and their families

I once volunteered at a comprehensive secondary school in east London. I supported Year 10 students who needed extra help with their history lessons. The school became notorious for something completely different to its academic success: several of its students fled the UK to join the Islamic State (IS).

The school was Bethnal Green Academy (now renamed Mulberry Academy, Shoreditch) and the most well-known of those students is Shamima Begum. Shamima was 14 and in the same year as the students I was tutoring, though I never worked with her myself.

Shamima first appeared in the news when she left the UK with two friends to join the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. A lot of people have analysed what happened after Shamima left home, but I think the more important question is: what happened before? How could someone so young become radicalised and adopt such an extremist ideology?

Mulberry Academy Shoreditch (formerly Bethnal Green Academy). Image (cropped) by Jake Brockman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This spurred me on to find out more about Shamima’s life and the timeline of events that led to her leaving the UK and joining IS. Looking into her story, I discovered that Shamima was a Londoner like me. She grew up in Tower Hamlets, east London, and her family, like many others in the area, had a Bangladeshi background.

Shamima may have first viewed extremist material on social media, as she was a prolific Twitter user. She was exposed to known extremists, having contact with Aqsa Mahmood – who had travelled from Scotland to join IS in 2013, aged 20. Aqsa has been suspected of promoting terrorism via Twitter, inciting people to commit violent acts, saying “if you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself.”

Yet, Aqsa was known to British intelligence services as someone who had become radicalised and was at risk of radicalising others. They were monitoring her social media accounts when Shamima messaged her on Twitter. Why didn’t anyone intervene at that point? Why didn’t anyone alert Shamima’s family or school to the kind of material she was viewing online?

Initially, Shamima preached that Islamic State were building a ‘utopia’; this idealisation is typical of the misinformation spread online

Her classmates report that Shamima and her friend Amira Abase (who travelled to Syria with her) became obsessed with an ‘Islamic religious group’ and encouraged others to join them. Shamima didn’t seem to believe that IS was a violent or hateful place, as they often preached that they were building a ‘utopia’ – a Heaven on Earth – in Syria, and that it was the ‘next big thing’.

A friend of Shamima’s said of these ideals, “They made it sound as if it was such a good place to be: You don’t need to worry about money or whatnot, everything’s there for you. If you just study and learn religion, uphold the values of Islam, your life is sorted.”

This idealisation is typical of the misinformation spread online; the promise of a better life, no money worries, and more opportunities to build a society that aligns with your values.

This can entice people to join such a cause, but often the reality is quite different. This strategy would almost certainly have appealed to 15-year-old Shamima, who grew up in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived areas of the UK, where 56% of children live below the poverty line (according to the latest census).

In reality, life in Syria was no utopia, and civilians regularly came under fire and suffered hugely while there

Shamima’s family lobbied the Government continually, arguing that social media and online grooming were crucial factors in their daughter’s decision to leave the UK. In 2019, in a letter to the Home Secretary, Shamima’s sister Renu expressed hope that “as she was groomed into what she has become, she can equally be helped back into the sister I knew.”

In an interview, Shamima said she was convinced to join IS, not just because of violent videos she saw of people fighting to protect Islamic values, but also “videos that show families and stuff in the park, the good life they can provide for you.”

In reality, IS in Syria was no utopia, and civilians regularly came under fire and suffered hugely while there. Shamima herself lost three babies while abroad, each dying at a very young age. Poor sanitation and a lack of medicines meant her babies caught infections they couldn’t fight off – hardly the idealised society the online propaganda videos had promised.

In a BBC report, Shamima later stated she couldn’t see a future for IS, saying “there is so much oppression and corruption going on that I don’t really think they deserve victory.”

It’s up to each of us to decide whether we feel Shamima’s sentiments are genuine or not. We must remember she was only 15 when she left the UK.

She was stripped of her British citizenship in 2019 by the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. In Summer 2020, she asked to return to the UK. The Court of Appeal agreed that she could return, but since then the Home Office have appealed this decision, arguing that allowing her to return would create a significant national security risk. Currently, Shamima is being held in a detention camp in North Syria.

It’s up to each of us to decide whether we feel her sentiments are genuine or not. We must remember that Shamima was only 15 when she left the UK. She admits she saw images and videos that presented IS as a ‘promised land’ yet, on arrival, she found it was nothing like what she’d been promised. I don’t believe she would have travelled to Syria had the reality been presented to her to begin with.

It’s been almost eight years since Shamima Begum disappeared from east London with two school friends. You can hear more about her story in a new exclusive series of interviews for I’m Not a Monster podcast.

If you or someone you love is affected by radicalisation, check out Families For Life. You can also seek advice and support from a parent or teacher.

Teachers can access resources at Educate Against Hate to safeguard their students from radicalisation and promote inclusive values in their school.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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