Shamima Begum, an ISIS bride who left the UK to join the Islamic State group when she was just 15 years old, has lost the first stage of her appeal against being stripped of her British citizenship. But what makes young women turn to life as a terror convert in the first place? Stylist speaks to a reformed terror recruit to explore the mindset of a jihadi bride.
The average besotted teenager might have posters of Justin Bieber and The 1975 stuck on their bedroom walls, but for a tiny majority of young people, idolising the image of a Syrian heartthrob brandishing an AK47 is just as normal.
Indeed, in the eyes of most so-called “terror brides”, ISIS members are not violent extremists, but heroic and honourable freedom fighters seeking justice for marginalised minorities.
That certainly seemed to be the belief of jihadi bride Shamima Begum. Begum left her home in Bethnal Green to travel to Syria with two of her school friends back in 2015, when she was just 15 years old. She went on to marry a Dutch ISIS fighter. In February, she was discovered in a Syrian refugee camp, close to the warzone, and said she wanted to return home, but she was stripped of her British citizenship by Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
A few weeks after being discovered she gave birth to a baby boy, named Jarrah, who died of pneumonia in the camp less than three weeks later. In April 2019 she was granted legal aid to fight the decision to strip her of her British citizenship, with the aim of returning back to the UK. However, she has now lost her first appeal against this decision.
Of course, we can only speculate about the reasons behind Begum’s original decision to leave for Syria. But what factors could motivate a teenager to leave the UK in favour of a potentially deadly battlefield, and a life as a jihadi bride?
While Begum remains in a refugee camp in northern Syria, a former Jihadi bride invites us inside her mind to discover what made her vulnerable to radicalisation - and why she has since defected.
Thirty-year-old Fatima’s desire to take revenge on Britain began in childhood. Growing up in a “ruthless” environment in inner-city London, this hatred was her answer to racist insults and Islamophobia.
She recalls one incident in particular, in which she was assaulted by a gang of several girls when she was 11. “They backed me into a corner, pulled my headscarf off and grabbed my hair so hard that a whole handful ripped out,” she tells Stylist. “The whole time, they were screaming that I was a Paki bitch. Then they refused to give my headscarf back to me so that I had to walk home with my hair uncovered, [which is] against my religion. When I got back home, my mum was furious, and blamed me for allowing it to happen.”
Fatima’s pent-up rage at that injustice sensitised her to other slights. “Girls who pretended to be my friend one minute would make jokes about my religious father dropping a petrol bomb through their letterbox the next,” she continues. “They were portraying my family as ‘mad Muslim’ cartoon characters to belittle me.”
She tried desperately to stop the bullying by conforming to Western fashion ideals, donning a pair of branded trainers alongside her traditional clothing in the hope that the assaults on her identity would stop.
They didn’t – and as she entered her teenage years, they intensified. “Men would come up behind me, groping me, threatening to pull off my headscarf and jeering that I would be a slut without it,” she recalls. “I have also been punched and kicked. I never felt safe. Then when I got a part time job in a supermarket to support my studies, the other workers would shout, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ at me sarcastically when they walked past – sometimes even in front of customers.”
Fatima felt her faith in British culture was finally eradicated when one of her closest friends – a fellow Muslim – was subjected to a violent assault during pregnancy. “My friend was pushed to the ground and kicked in the head while heavily pregnant,” she remembers. “This gang of girls called her a failed abortion and then threatened to kick her unborn child to death in her stomach to eliminate Muslim babies.”
Fortunately the baby survived, but Fatima’s experiences are not isolated ones. According to the Home Office, more than 4,000 anti-Muslim religious hate crimes were documented in 2017/18 – a rise of 40% on the previous year – while Scotland Yard has suggested that the scale of the problem is “hugely under-reported”, indicating that the true figures may be much higher. One high profile example is the recent attack of a 15-year-old Syrian refugee who was assaulted in the grounds of a British school. Video footage revealed the teenager being thrown to the ground, choked, force-fed from a bottle and threatened with drowning. Labour MP David Lammy has since spoken of the “hostile environment” that is driving some Muslims in Britain to “overdoses and suicide attempts”.
Yet what happens when that resentment and fear is no longer turned inwards, but instead finds expression externally? This was exactly the process that Fatima went through when, at the most vulnerable point in her life, she was radicalised and groomed to join a terror group.
According to psychoanalysis, when faced with trauma, it is common to disassociate from reality and retreat to a fantasy world as a defence mechanism against pain. Perhaps this is why Fatima began to romanticise the “freedom fighters” of ISIS, viewing them as protectors of her cultural identity. After a chance meeting with a man who attended the same local mosque as her, she was pointed in the direction of online articles about “Islamic justice” – and additional searches gradually revealed more and more about extremist networks. Throughout her childhood, she had also taken comfort in fairytales, and increasingly she was finding a link between them and her real life.
The archetypal fairytale imagery of an underdog rising up against oppression and achieving triumph against the odds is a popular one across all cultures. For instance, Cinderella breaks free of the “ugly sisters” who had forced her into household drudgery to finally liberate herself and marry her prince. Similarly, to Fatima – who had faced prejudice while growing up in a white majority world – the ISIS fighter seemed, symbolically, like the prince who would rescue her from the torture. Just as young girls might harbour Rapunzel-style daydreams about being trapped in a tower while waiting to be rescued by a tall and handsome stranger, for Fatima the fetishized war hero became that fantasy figure.
When someone is being relentlessly bullied and tormented on a daily basis, then the ideology of a strong and protective freedom fighter who understands and identifies with her culture – the very culture she feels persecuted for representing – may become less of a dangerous threat and more of a reassuring presence. For that reason, Fatima was undeterred when she encountered her real life “prince” – an ISIS recruit and fellow Londoner that she met online. After a short courtship, they were married within months, all with the approval of her unsuspecting friends and family. They had no idea that he expressed such a strong interest in avenging attacks on Muslims. But in 2014, when he urged Fatima to secretly join him in leaving the UK for Syria, she agreed.
Fatima admired her husband as much as she believed British women admired Prince Harry in his career as an army pilot – a time during which he admitted to killing Taliban troops from the air. “Prince Harry was a warring hero for the British people,” Fatima states, “so I felt: why can’t we have our own heroes that protect us?”
ISIS is infamous for its brutal torture methods, including the beheading and mutilation of its foes – but at the time, Fatima was filled with so much resentment that she overlooked the facts. “You hear about attacks on British people on the news, but then compare that to the women who threatened to kick an innocent baby to death just for being a Muslim and suddenly you don’t feel so sorry for them anymore,” she explains.
While Fatima received little empathy at home for the bullying she suffered and witnessed, her new husband showered her with respect and affection. “I wanted to be with people who were kind to me, and not the British enemies who had not been, or my family who didn’t understand,” she says. “So I agreed to travel to Syria.”
By 2015, a 26-year-old Fatima had finally arrived to support the “liberation army”. She and her husband lived in cramped conditions shared by several other couples. There were few Brits around her but she had a strong knowledge of Arabic, which helped her to integrate.
The reality of her new life, however, was darker than she could ever have imagined. On arrival, she and her husband were handed books which justified the murder of children, the imprisonment of “sex slaves”, human organ trade, beheadings and mutilations and even the use of pregnant women in warfare. Anything that culled the enemy or raised funds for further terrorism seemed “fair game”.
At first Fatima had justified the attacks on Westerners as “retaliation for the many parallel attacks on the Islamic state”. For the government, airstrikes against Syria were part of a logical, strategic decision to protect Britain against the threat of lethal chemical weapons. To Fatima, on the other hand, they symbolised terrifying flashbacks to moments when her culture was being assassinated and she lacked the ability to fight back. She fended off these reminders of powerlessness by identifying with ISIS.
However she then had a similar experience to Shamima Begum, who – according to newspaper reports – found a decapitated head in a dustbin. Once an enthusiastic supporter of ISIS, Fatima subsequently saw something so terrifying that she will not reveal what it was – but it was a wake-up call that changed her mind for good.
Realising that “the solution for violence is never more violence”, in early 2017, a fearful Fatima returned to the UK – and has not been reunited with her husband since. Her family welcomed her back, on the condition that she cut all ties with the extremists. As a result, she knows nothing of her husband’s whereabouts – just that he was deeply “disappointed” by her defection. She has since moved to a new area, in calmer suburbs, and rejects violence, aiming to “learn to make peace with the country where I was born”.
Fatima is adamant that she was not brainwashed into supporting ISIS. However, in her opinion, it’s “possible” that Shamima Begum has been threatened with consequences “if she dares to be publicly disloyal to the Islamic State”. She adds that she may be frightened to openly renounce her support for the group – even if it means securing safe passage to the UK and medical attention for her child.
“Once you’re too far in,” she concedes, “for some, it can be difficult to get out.”
Of course, Begum was 11 years younger than Fatima when she arrived in Syria in 2015, and could have had an entirely different experience in the country. Not all Jihadi brides will share the same mindset, and it is impossible to judge what Begum herself is thinking at this time.
Fatima blames widespread Islamophobia and stereotypes that depict some members of the Muslim community as “dangerous terrorists” for creating an environment where female terror recruits can thrive. “When someone ties you to a stereotype for years, eventually you get tired of trying to prove people wrong, and out of anger, you start living up to that stereotype,” she relates. “People thought we were bad anyway – in my mind at the time, we might as well just match their expectations.”
There are statistics in support of her stereotyping theory - for instance, in the week following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombings, a 700% spike was reported in street attacks on Muslims. One of the abused was a surgeon on his way to treat patients at a hospital. These figures indicate that some innocent and law-abiding citizens are being racially profiled and automatically branded criminals based on the actions of a few. Even now, the vicious circle of retaliation persists against Muslims and Islamophobes alike.
Might repeated exposure to violence desensitise a victim of Islamophobia, or other prejudice, to the effects of inflicting it themselves? Psychoanalyst Sue Gerhardt theorises that “young people who are treated harshly may not develop empathy”. She argues: “Other people’s feelings do not seem real to them because theirs have not been [treated as] real. If they have only known cruelty, then they do not recognise humanity in others.”
She also states that severe trauma can potentially inhibit left-brain abilities, leaving victims unable to regulate their emotions by combining them with logical thought. This could reduce a person’s brain to a child-like state which is devoid of reasoning, where vengeance need not be logical or fair.
While Fatima successfully extricated herself from the ISIS network and is now on the road to reform, others will not be so lucky. A small number of those with fractured families or who have been the victims of race or religion-based violence in the past, may always be drawn towards supporting what are ultimately dangerous, demonstrative ways of overturning oppression. A tiny number of people in some minority groups may feel that terrorist organisations offer a way to gain social dominance against those they feel have persecuted them.
However, although psychologists have been studying the mindsets of those in terrorism groups for decades, they are yet to single out specific personality traits that are common to all members, both terrorists and terror converts alike. Crucially, they have never found any significant link between terrorism and mental disorders. This implies that a desire to be involved in groups such as ISIS is not innate, but a learnt pattern that is potentially reversible.
Fatima’s experience paints a picture of a naïve, idealistic and severely traumatised young woman looking for the traditional fairytale ending of finding a prince to protect her. While we will always struggle to eradicate genuine evil, it is not impossible that some women, like Fatima, hate so hard simply because they were hurt by those they had originally wanted to love.
This piece was originally published in April 2019
Images: Getty, Unsplash