Runaway brides of ISIL are found in terror HQ
Special report by Ruth Sherlock and Rashed al-Sara in Urfa, Turkey
Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30
Disguised by face-covering niqabs and black abayas, three women walked down the stairs and stepped out on to the streets of Raqqa. It was just a trip to the local store to buy groceries. But even so, one of them carried a Kalashnikov automatic rifle slung over her shoulder.
To residents of the Syrian Isil stronghold, the three figures barely merited a second glance.
But secretly filmed video of this excursion may be the first hard evidence as to the whereabouts and movements of three British schoolgirls who fled their east London homes in February.
A month-long enquiry has found that Shamima Begum (15), Kadiza Sultana (16) and Amira Abase (15) spent their first months in Isil's self-declared "caliphate" under lock and key in an apartment in Raqqa.
The schoolgirls, from Bethnal Green, 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 hard-line version of Sharia law.
Just six months ago, the girls had been pupils at Bethnal Green Academy, posting on Facebook about going swimming, birthday treats and American rap stars. The contrast in their lives as revealed by the video could hardly be more stark.
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 a 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 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 - passed to The Daily Telegraph - that it claims shows at least two of the girls shopping for groceries.
The activists risked their lives to shoot the video - at least six of their number have died trying to bear witness to the truth about life in Raqqa.
"[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."
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.
The activists followed close behind, using a hidden camera to capture the women on film. The two-minute undercover video follows the girls as they walk through Raqqa's streets.
One is wearing trainers similar to those worn by 15-year-old Amira Abase when she was caught on CCTV footage from a Turkish bus station in February as the girls waited to be taken to Syria.
The footage from Raqqa suggests an easy relationship between the three. The girl in trainers leads the group, a black shopping bag in her left hand, and a Kalashnikov slung over her right shoulder. The girl behind her carries a tray of eggs. A third brings up the rear, carrying another black plastic shopping bag full 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 wear bulletproof vests beneath their dresses for this reason.
Eye on the Homeland's surveillance operation, and the evidence of other sources, has provided the fullest insight yet into the fate of the teenage girls. In February of this year, Miss Sultana, Miss Begum and Miss Abase left their families and flew to Istanbul, having sold jewellery to raise money for tickets and to pay the men who would smuggle them into the Syrian war zone.
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", Mr Rashid gave them Syrian passports and tested code names 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 jihadist known as Abu Mohareb al-Jazrawi."
The Saudi is part of an Isil cell charged with helping transport would-be foreign jihadists to Raqqa. He took the girls to a safe house near the border used for new volunteers who are 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," said Mr Abdulkader. "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 was formerly 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.
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 the ICSR think-tank, said she believed there were 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, 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 Isil: she was alleged to have had a hand in luring the Bethnal Green girls to Raqqa, though she contacted her parents to deny this.
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 there has been no direct communication with the activists inside Raqqa, Mr Abdulkader, who is based in southern Turkey, produced 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 services have been cut, satellite internet connections are believed to have been banned in private homes and internet cafes 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 scant 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 said, 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 been allowed out only with their chaperone. On one occasion, Mr Abdulkader said, the girls visited the headquarters of the "Khansa brigade", the feared female Isil police force that patrols the city, enforcing the jihadists' hard-line 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, said a female senior member of Isil keeps 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.
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 media, Mr Akunjee declined to comment on the details that had come to light from the activists in Raqqa, but said he believed the girls were now living apart, though still in the city.
But the girls' own claims cannot necessarily be trusted, Ms Smith and Mr Abdulkader agreed, as they would likely have been "under close watch" when they spoke to their families.
Speaking negatively of the Isil to outsiders is a grave offence. Punishment for betraying the jihadist'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 have said that there were a growing number of foreigners who want to escape. One, who asked not to be named, cited a group of 40 Europeans who travelled to Syria to join Isil, but now 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.
But Mr Akunjee said he believed their hopes would be dashed. The journey to join Isil, it appears, is a one-way street.