Found: British schoolgirls who ran away to join Isis spotted on streets of Raqqa
Published 04/07/2015 | 10:09
The three British schoolgirls who ran away from home to join the Islamic State group in Syria were kept under close watch in a compound for widows and would-be jihadi brides while their loyalty to the movement was tested, The Telegraph has learned.
Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, who ran away from home in February, spent their first months in Isil’s caliphate under lock and key in an apartment in the jihadists’ stronghold city of Raqqa.
The schoolgirls, from Bethnal Green, east London, were put in the care of a woman handler known as Um Laith – “Mother of the Lion” – tasked with “purifying their Western minds” by instilling the practices of Isil’s hardline version of sharia law.
In their first months in the city the girls were not trusted by Raqqa’s Isil rulers, and were forbidden to leave their apartment without their chaperone, according to activists in the city who have monitored the girls’ movements.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Isil emir (leader) with knowledge of the girls’ whereabouts confirmed to this paper that Isil had been “keeping the girls together” and “testing them”. “Until now we don’t trust them,” he said.
But eight weeks ago, activists from Eye on the Homeland, an anti-Isil opposition movement in the city, shot video footage – given to the Telegraph – that they claim shows at least two of the girls shopping for groceries.
A copy of the video was previously passed around, including to other media outlets, by middle men who did not know the significance of the footage. But this paper was able to speak to the organisation, who then divulged the full story of what it showed and how they obtained it.
“[Our men] were watching the compound when they saw three covered women coming from their apartment,” said Ahmad Abdulkader, the director of Eye on the Homeland. “Only they and Um Laith live in this apartment, and they hadn’t had visitors.”
Three women disguised by the face-covering niqab and black abaya walked down the stairs and left the building. The activists said that, because previously the girls had not been allowed out alone, they believed that one of the three women was Um Laith.
“We don’t know this for sure. It is possible that after more than two months of living with them, they were trusted enough to go out alone together,” Mr Abdulkader said, adding that such behaviour would be out of character.
The activists followed close behind, using a hidden camera to capture the women on film. The two-minute undercover video, passed exclusively to the Telegraph by Eye on the Homeland, follows the girls as they walk through Raqqa’s streets.
One of the girls is wearing trainers similar to those worn by 15-year-old Amira in CCTV footage shot at a Turkish bus station in February as the girls waited to be taken to Syria.
The footage suggests an easy relationship between the three. The trainer-clad girl leads the group, a black shopping bag in her left hand, and a Kalashnikov automatic rifle slung over her right shoulder.
The girl behind her carries a tray of eggs. A third brings up the rear, carrying another heavy black plastic shopping bag of groceries.
Mr Abdulkader said: “It’s normal that they should be carrying a gun. No foreign fighter, not even the women, leaves the house without a weapon. They fear attacks from opposition cells inside the city.”
He added that many often wear bullet-proof vests below their dresses for this reason.
Eye on the Homeland’s surveillance operation, and the evidence of other sources who have spoken to the Telegraph, has provided the fullest insight yet into the fate of the teenage girls
In February of this year, Ms Sultana, Ms Begum and Ms Abase left their families and flew to Istanbul, having sold jewellery to raise the money for their tickets and to pay the men who would smuggle them into the Syrian war zone where Isil was carving out its “caliphate”.
Arriving in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, the girls were captured on CCTV footage at a bus station, each with a small bag.
Another video, filmed by a smuggler called Mohammed Rashid (an Isil double agent who reportedly passed intelligence to the British and Canadian governments and was subsequently arrested by Turkish authorities), showed the girls clad in long black Islamic tunics clambering into a car.
Calling one of the girls “Sis”, Rashid gave them Syrian passports and tested codenames they had apparently been given. “Who is Um Ahmed?” he asked, before telling them to “hurry” and assuring them they would be in Syria in “one hour”.
Until now, little has been known about what happened next.
“The girls were taken to an illegal crossing point known as Abu Zella, north of Tal Abyad [the official border post in the area],” said Mr Abdulkader. “They were handed to a Saudi known as Abu Mohareb al-Jazrawi.”
The Saudi jihadist is part of an Isil cell charged with helping transport would-be foreign jihadists to Raqqa. He took the girls to a safe house used for new volunteers who have yet to be vetted.
“There they checked the girls’ papers, and confiscated their passports and identity cards,” Mr Abdulkader said. “They stayed in the house a day or two.”
The girls were then passed to another Isil smuggler, calling himself Abu Fahad, who transferred them to Raqqa.
“Abu Fahad is probably not his real name or even real code name,” Mr Abdulkader said. “Isil members don’t give any identifying information to newcomers until they are sure they’re not infiltrators.”
The girls were taken to the maqar – female-only communal lodging for unmarried or widowed women – that became their home for the next few months.
The two-storey building used to house the administrative office of a major government-run wheat processing plant, Mr Abdulkader said. It is located in the north of the city, in Sawamie district, not far from the grain silos that give the area its name in Arabic.
Mr Abdulkader said the jihadists believe the former offices are a safe location, unlikely to be hit by US-led coalition air strikes because they are far from any Isil military bases, and so close to residential apartment blocks that any attack would probably cost many civilian lives.
Melanie Smith, the co-author of a recent report on female foreign fighters, published jointly by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and ICSR think tank, told the Telegraph she believed there are approximately four such “maqars” in Raqqa.
“It’s a place to reinforce the Isil ideology and monitor the day-to-day decisions they take,” she said.
To this end, the girls were placed in an apartment with Um Laith, who is said to be married to an Isil “emir” but continues to live in the women-only building. “Her husband may be fighting on the front line/front-line, or he may have been killed in battle,” explained Mr Abdulkader.
Though she shares the same pseudonym, this Um Laith is not Aqsa Mahmood, the 20-year-old student from Glasgow who travelled to Syria and has been vocal in helping recruit British women to the caliphate: she was alleged to have had a hand in luring the Bethnal Green girls to Raqqa, though this is a claim that the female jihadist contacted her parents to deny.
This handler is believed to be older, and is “Arabic”, said Mr Abdulkader. “Um Laith is in charge of the house. They keep important muhajirat [female foreign jihadists] with her because she is trusted by Isil.”
Having been tipped off by an insider about the girls’ journey and their location in Raqqa, the activists began watching the building. “They tracked the girls to this area and watched the building every day for the first few weeks and then checked in less frequently after,” said Mr Abdulkader.
While the Telegraph was not able to communicate directly with the activists inside Raqqa, Mr Abdulkader, who is based in southern Turkey, showed excerpts of his written communication with his sources.
Speaking to foreign journalists is a crime punishable by death in Isil controlled areas, and, as the US-led air strikes increase, the paranoid Isil leadership has sought to control communications in the city. Mobile phone lines have been cut, satellite internet connections are believed to have been banned in private homes and internet cafés are carefully monitored.
“They send us information when they can find a safe space to talk. They have their ways,” said Mr Abdulkader.
With the girls’ block located on a residential street, and with little Isil security outside so as not to draw attention to the building, the activists were able to monitor the home relatively easily, Mr Abdulkader said. Large windows over a central staircase allowed them to see inside the low-rise building, meaning they could track movements from individual apartments.
“The girls went out very rarely,” Mr Abdulkader told the Telegraph, scrolling through a detailed report sent by his men. “Usually about once or twice per week.” He said that during these trips there had always been four people, indicating that they had only been allowed out with their chaperone.
On one occasion, Mr Abdulkader said, the girls visited the headquarters of the “Khansa brigade”, the feared female Isil police force who patrol the city enforcing the jihadists’ hardline sharia laws, and dealing out punishments – often in the form of lashings to women who transgress.
The headquarters also houses “marital offices” where girls are “registered” when they are ready to be married. A resident of Raqqa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Telegraph that a female senior member of Isil keeps the files and uses them to match girls to Isil fighters searching for a wife.
Ms Smith said: “The idea that they are being trained so they can be trusted is something we have seen before. Often newcomers are under effective house arrest whilst they are taught sharia, and how to behave in public according to Isil’s cultural norms.”
While the girls would probably be married eventually, Mr Abdulkader said the jihadists were not in a hurry. “The girls in Isil are useful for many more things than marriage,” he said.
Mr Abdulkader denied the claims of an Isil defector that the girls were being trained for “suicide bombings”, but said they were being incorporated into Isil’s propaganda machine, which is designed to attract more foreigners to its turf.
At the end of May, Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer representing the families of the three girls, reported that they had been contacted by their parents. The girls told them they were “safe” and “well”, he said in a statement.
When contacted this week by the Telegraph, Mr Akunjee declined to comment on the details that have come to light from the activists in Raqqa, but he said that he believed the girls were now living apart, though still in the city.
But the girls’ claims cannot necessarily be trusted, Ms Smith and Mr Abdulkader agreed, as they are likely to have been “under close watch” by their handler whilst they spoke to their families.
Speaking negatively of the “Islamic State” to outsiders is a grave offence. Punishment for betraying the caliphate’s ideals is harsh: Mr Abdulkader said he knew of three new male foreign arrivals in recent months who had been publicly executed because they were not considered trustworthy.
Other sources inside Raqqa told this newspaper that there are a growing number of foreigners who want to escape. One, who asked not to be named, cited a group of 40 Europeans who “arrived to the caliphate. But now they are desperate to leave. They say it’s not like they were promised on the internet. It’s dangerous, it’s harsh; there are killings and bombs,” the source said.
Mr Abdulkader said he believed that the girls too would like to escape if they could, citing rumours from defectors he had spoken to.
In his statement, Mr Akunjee said the girls had now been “separated”. Mr Abdulkader confirmed this may be the case: he said that his activists had not been able to trace the girls to their old apartment in recent weeks. They may have been kept in Raqqa, though the activists also suggested they might even have been moved to Mosul, the Isil-held city in Iraq.
Wherever they are, if they want to escape, he said, they would not be able to. The journey to the caliphate is a one-way street.