Exclusive: “Maryam” is a British woman who has moved to Syria to join the anti-Assad rebels. She can use a Kalashnikov and would like to fight, but has had to settle for the life of a jihadi’s wife.
She’s a tall young woman, dressed in a hijab, complete with face veil, firing a gun. She speaks with a London accent, and calls herself “Maryam”.
It’s not her real name, but her commitment to the jihad is real enough: “These are our brothers and sisters and they need our help.”
Maryam shoots a Kalashnikov for the camera, and then fires off a revolver. She’d like to fight, to become what she calls a martyr. But she’s not a frontline fighter. She’s a fighter’s wife, with weapons for her own protection.
Exclusively obtained by Channel 4 News, they were filmed by Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert who’s living among western jihadi fighters and their families inside Syria, documenting their lives.
He says he wants to show the reality of the lives of these foreign jihadis.
Maryam’s marriage to her fighter husband, Abu Bakr, was arranged by his mother three months ago. She didn’t meet him until after they were married.
He’s Swedish, and born a Muslim. She’s British, and converted to Islam four years ago.
“I couldn’t find anyone in the UK who was willing to sacrifice their life in this world for the life in the hereafter… I prayed, and Allah ruled that I came here to marry Abu Bakr.”
Until her recent departure from the UK for Syria she lived what she describes as an okay life.
When she was younger she liked to watch football on TV. She studied psychology and sociology at college, and says compared to others on her road she was rich, although by British standards she was poor.
She says her parents know she’s travelled to the war-torn country, but they don’t know the detail of what she’s doing.
Hers is a choice she wants other Muslims to make: “You need to wake up and stop being scared of death… we know that there’s heaven and hell. At the end of the day, Allah’s going to question you. Instead of sitting down and focusing on your families or your study, you just need to wake up because the time is ticking.”
She and her husband are raising a child together, and are now expecting another. They appear at ease together on camera, talking over who should do the cooking, squabbling over who has the better Kalashnikov.
But they agree on the big picture. Their long-term objective is what they see as the liberation of Syria, followed by the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
Abu Bakr fights with the Sunni jihadi militia known as Katiba al Muhajireen – the battalion of migrants – an active fighting force.
They fight alongside bigger Islamic groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. He’s a full-time fighter. He lists the victories his militia has won.
But this is Syria. There are not only victories but defeats, and serious atrocities.
President Assad’s forces are fighting here to take back rebel-held territory from groups they regard as terrorists. By night, from the building where the family live, they can hear the government forces’ heavy weapons and see the flash of firing on the horizon.
Maryam says the sound of the fight doesn’t bother her. Instead, she says it makes her feel like “victory is near. God willing my son will join them. Maybe I’ll join them. They are honoured to be there, unlike me. I’m in the house, but, at least I’m here”.
Another British family is here as well. They live downstairs.
“Aisha” (not her real name) says she only arrived a month ago with her husband, who’s joined the same band of foreign fighters as his neighbour. They have a daughter.
Aisha says she was a little unhappy at first, but now she and her daughter are settling in: “I think children adapt very quickly, so she’s been okay.
“The first few days, she was saying she wants to go back home. She wants to go to England. But now she’s okay. She loves being outdoors, being able to play.”
The two women have the use of a car, and drive to the supermarket along the rough dirt roads. Noting Maryam’s hair-raising speed, someone describes her as driving like a “mujahid” or holy warrior.
She wears motorcycle gloves for modesty, and describes the gloves her sisters wear as too feminine.
At the supermarket, they buy nappies, bread, a bucket, the kind of thing you’d normally buy on a shopping trip.
Maryam admits she misses British food, especially cakes, junk food, and her mother’s cooking.
She says her parents know she’s in Syria, although they’re unaware of the full detail of her situation, and that her father has offered to send money. Her husband earns roughly $150 a month.
Maryam says she has no plans to return to the UK, ever, even if her new husband is killed in battle.
“I will stay here because I didn’t come here for him. I wouldn’t like to go back to the UK. I’ll stay here, raise my children, focus on the Arabic language to communicate with the Syrian people.
“As long as I have a car, I’ll be able to go shopping and do as I’m doing now.”
Written by Kylie Morris and Sasha Joelle Achilli