14 Oct 2015

UK mum who took her children to the ‘Islamic State’ speaks

Shukee Begum, who took her five children to Syria to meet her jihadi husband, gives her first interview about life in the so-called Islamic State.

Shukee Begum

Ms Begum, 33, travelled to Syria in search of her husband, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Jamal al-Harith, in August last year.

The Muslim convert, born Ronald Fiddler, was suspected of terrorism by the Americans but freed without charge from the US detention centre in 2004 after lobbying by the British government.

But he left the UK 18 months ago to join the so-called Islamic State (IS). The extremist Sunni group has become notorious for attacking other faith groups, beheading prisoners and enslaving women in Syria and Iraq.

Al-Harith urged his wife to come to Syria with him, despite the fact that she was six months pregnant with their fifth child at the time. She refused.

But when her baby was just four weeks old, Ms Begum took all five children to Turkey for a holiday in that country and was smuggled across the border after she says repeated pressure from her husband to join him in an IS-held part of war-torn Syria.

Ms Begum, a law graduate from Greater Manchester, insists she did not support the extremists, and says she wanted to persuade al-Harith to return to the family home.

Jamal al-Harith

She said: “He’s my husband and all of a sudden he’s not there. It didn’t feel like home any more. I was trying to manage school runs, things like that.

“I was thinking about the children’s futures. Was he part of it? Will he come back? All these things go through your mind.”

She added: “I was seeing on the news at this point that Isis was going from bad to worse… So I decided that I was going to try and speak some sense into him.

At the same time I wanted to see him. I wanted the children to see their father. I wanted the baby to meet his father as well.”

Despite al-Harith’s decision to enlist with IS, she insisted: “My husband is a family man. I’ve always known him. I’ve been married to him for 11 years. I’ve always known him to be a good man with good characteristics.

“For me to take the children to see him and then come away from there, that would have been more powerful than anything else I could have said at the time.”

Women in Raqqa (Reuters)

Life in Raqqa

After getting to Syria, Ms Begum ended up living in a crowded safe-house in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, with dozens of other foreign women looking for their husbands.

“You’ve got hundreds of families living in one hall, sharing perhaps one or two bathrooms between them, one or two kitchens between them. Children crying, children were sick.

“There was a gangster kind of mentality among single women there. Violent talk – talking about war, killing. They would sit together and huddle around their laptops and watch Isis videos together and discuss them and everything. It was just not my cup of tea.

“It was worse than I expected. I didn’t expect it to be so overcrowded for them to just lumber so many women and children together just for the sake of them being there, waiting for their husbands, waiting for properties to live in.”

Eventually, mother and children were reunited with al-Harith, and the family moved to a house near al-Bab in northern Syria. But she could not convince him to leave the so-called caliphate.

Ms Begum said she only planned to keep the children in Syria for a month, but a bag containing her phones, travel money and passports was stolen as she entered the country and she found herself trapped.

She asked her husband to help her get out, to no avail. And she appealed to an Islamic court to give her permission to leave, but was told: “Women and children belong in Isis territory.”

“This is what I want to make clear as well to other women thinking of coming into Isis territory – that you can’t just expect to come into Isis territory and then expect that you can just leave again easily,” she said. “There is no personal autonomy there at all.”

Imprisoned by smugglers

Desperate to escape, Ms Begum contacted a group of people smugglers, who took her to a house in Azaz, near a major crossing-point on the Turkish border.

Revealing the full details of her ordeal for the first time, she said that instead of spiriting her over the border to safety, the gang took her to Aleppo, Syria’s second city and the site of some of the bitterest fighting in the country’s civil war, where she and the children were held captive while the smugglers tried to sell her story to the media.

“We were held in a basement prison without any natural sunlight for 86 days. The children had to wear the same clothes for the first two weeks.

“My three-year-old, he would wet the bed, and we didn’t have any clothes to change him into. I washed the clothes and I hung them up to dry. He had to stay under a quilt all day whilst the clothes dried.

“I requested to contact my family. I requested if I could just send a message I said to let them know I’m okay, and they wouldn’t even allow me that.”

Shukee Begum

‘I wasn’t Isis and I’m not Isis’

She tried to convince her captors she did not support the Islamic State group or its aims.

“I wasn’t Isis and I’m not Isis. I was hoping that would be the deciding factor and they would let us go after a while.

“I had evidence as well. I told them: ‘You can check my Facebook, you can check my personal email accounts. I don’t have anything to show I’m an Isis supporter.'”

After almost three months imprisoned in Aleppo, she was finally freed. Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert who has documented the experiences of foreign Islamists in Syria says he helped facilitate her release.

Shukee Begum and her family are now said to be safe and living in Syria, near the Turkish border.

She says she is biding her time before returning to Britain because she fears she could face terrorism charges.

Last year Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police and policing lead for the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, warned that Britons returning from Syria would be stopped at the border and face arrest.

Ms Begum said: “I’d love to go back to the UK. The UK is my home. I grew up there. My friends are there. My family are there. That’s where I consider to be home.

“But I’m just not sure at the moment, with the track record of the current government, if the UK is somewhere I can achieve justice. I hope I’m wrong.”