Shukee Begum travelled to ISIS-held territory in Syria with her five children to chase after her husband, a fighter with the terror group. But after eventually fleeing the so-called Islamic State, the 33-year-old Briton described the violent mindset of the extremists and their supporters as being not her “cup of tea.”
A new mother to a 4-week-old child, she explained to Britain’s Channel 4 News how she was smuggled over the border from Turkey in August 2014, with the baby and four other children all under the age of 10 in tow.
Before she was finally reunited with her husband of 11 years, she spent time in a safe house in Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the extremist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, with many other foreign women waiting for their husbands.
Life in an ISIS safe house
“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,” Begum recounted.
“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 just wasn’t my cup of tea.”
The law school grad insists she was not a supporter of ISIS and only went to urge her husband to leave. She didn’t think she’d be there for very long.
“I was hoping I could at least convince him to leave where he was,” she told Channel 4 News. “I knew at that point he probably wouldn’t want to come back to the United Kingdom. But, I felt at least I could try to convince him to come and stay with us in Turkey for a while, until things get clearer in Syria.
“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.”
Who is Shukee Begum’s husband?
Her husband, according to Channel 4 News, is Jamal al-Harith. The British broadcaster described him as a “Muslim convert” who was born Ronald Fiddler. He was held in the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for more than two years, after being found in a Taliban prison in Afghanistan. He was never charged with any crime and the British government secured his release in 2004.
He joined ISIS after taking the family on a vacation to Turkey 18 months ago, hoping Begum would follow along at that time.
Begum’s efforts to convince her husband to leave ultimately failed. She appealed to an Islamic court to leave, but was rebuffed. The court told her: “Women and children belong in ISIS territory.”
Her passport, as well as the children’s documents and all their money, was “snatched” as soon as she arrived in Syria.
She ultimately had to turn to smugglers again, but this time she and the children ended up being held captive in Aleppo.
“We were held in a basement prison without any natural sunlight for 86 days,” she said. “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.”
Begum and the children were freed after three months, but they remain in Syria. She knows she can’t attempt to go back to the U.K. now.
“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.”
She wants other women considering travel to the Islamic State to know that once they’re in the Islamic State there will be little chance to leave.
Her story follows that of several “disillusioned” foreigners who have escaped or defected from ISIS.
A report last month from the U.K.-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) detailed the accounts of 58 defectors who described a “harsh and disappointing” life under ISIS and claimed the group is “more interested in fighting fellow (Sunni) Muslims than the Assad government.”
The U.S. government believes as many as 30,000 foreigners have travelled to the Islamic State territory in Syria and Iraq, a number that has only increased in the past year despite an international military effort to degrade the designated terrorist group.