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Shamima Begum's former schoolmates have spoken for the first time of their memories of the moment she and two pals fled the UK for ISIS.
Classmates were torn between empathy and disgust at what became of the Bethnal Green schoolgirl who became one of Britain's most notorious exports at age 15.
As a remorseful Begum hopes to return to Britain, the nation is split by debate over her future.
Former classmate Jon* remembers noticing matching pins on the lapels of his classmates Shamima Begum and Amira Abase’s blazers all thos years ago.
It was a black flag with white Arabic writing on it.
Curious about what it represented, he asked.
“They explained it was an Islamic group,” said Jon.
“[They said] everyone that’s part of the group, they're going to heaven. [The group] are trying to build a better place; a utopia.”
Jon, who shared many lessons with the two girls, had seen them undergo a transformation in a matter of months, he told My London.
Shamima Begum's trip to join ISIS at 15 propelled the Bethnal Green schoolgirl into the world spotlight
(Image: James Longman/ABC News)
The pair, previously known for their love of reading and high grades, had become obsessed with this unusual Islamic religious group, who they tried to recruit other students for.
“They’d start talking about religion and try to rope people in,” Jon continued.
“They were really pressuring about it, there were like ‘you know, if you don't go to Islam you're going to hell, you're going to die'.”
Shamima and Amira spoke with such knowledge and maturity, said Jon, their words often sounded like they’d been scripted by adults.
Their chats took place at school, although Amira also contacted him on BlackBerry Messenger. They never spoke on Facebook or any other platforms “that could be tracked.”
He said Amira wanted him to meet an Imam – an Islamic teacher – who could explain ISIS in more detail.
“Being 14 years or 15 years old, you don't have that mental capacity to think you know what is right and what is wrong. So in my experience, it was scary,” he said.
But the teenage Jon, not from a Muslim background himself, also found the pitch appealing.
The east London schoolgirl travelled to Syria with two friends to join the Islamic State when she was just 15
'It's the next big thing'
The overarching message Shamima and Amira delivered was not one of hate or violence: it was a dream of a perfect society.
Jon could try it, they said, if he went to Syria, where the Islamic group was building its utopia.
“[They told me] there's a community in Syria," Jon explained. "It's expanding, it's growing, it’s the next big thing.
“They made it sound as if it was such a good place to be: You don't need to worry about money or whatnot, everything's there for you.
“If you just study and learn religion, uphold the values of Islam, your life is sorted.”
To Jon it sounded like an incredible place.
“It was very attractive and I could see why those girls wanted to be there.
“[Based on this message] I can understand other people who were thinking of going or went to Syria.”
Efforts to return Begum to Britain have sparked intense national debate
(Image: BBC supplied by Pixel8000)
As a teen, Jon didn’t keep up with the news and he wasn’t aware there was a brutal civil war tearing the country apart.
He only realised later that the group Shamima and Azira wanted him to join was the Islamic State and that the symbol he’d noticed on their blazers was their flag.
In reality, life under ISIS was defined by a violent and hateful interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
The Islamic State was known for public executions, human slave markets, torture and murder.
“I never heard anything about ISIS violence,” Jon explained.
“What you got pitched was a sunny, beautiful, idyllic place. As a kid you want that fairytale life.”
Whether Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana were aware of ISIS’s brutal practices when they decided to take the leap a few months later and go to Syria has been a matter of fierce debate.
Begum was tracked down to a camp in Syria after ISIS lost its grip in the region
If they were, they certainly never mentioned anything about it to Jon when they encouraged him to join.
He only discovered the true nature of ISIS when his friends left for Syria.
Their departure and the media storm that followed transformed Jon’s school; Bethnal Green Academy (BGA).
Many stories have been written about the three girls who travelled to Syria in February 2015, but few have featured their peers from all those years ago.
After months of research, My London found students who attended BGA around the same time as Shamima, Amira and Kadiza, willing to speak.
Given the extreme reaction this episode still generates amongst the British public, it was not easy to find people willing to speak and for the same reasons those who did have their identity protected.
Begum sobbed as she told documentary-makers of the pain of losing her child
(Image: The Return: Life After ISIS will launch on Sky Documentaries and streaming service NOW on Tuesday 15th June at 9pm)
Schoolgirls start going missing
Jon said things started to get strange around Christmas 2014 when another girl from Bethnal Green Academy, Sharmeena Begum (no relation to Shamima), suddenly disappeared.
It later transpired she had travelled to join ISIS in Syria.
When she went missing her schoolmates asked the teacher – 'why?'
“She was in our science classes so we were like ‘where’s Sharmeena? What's going on?’ The teachers didn't know themselves or maybe they did, but didn't want to tell us,” said Jon.
In the absence of an explanation, the children found one for themselves.
“Maybe she left school? That’s what we thought, it was a bad school and a lot of kids used to leave.”
A couple of months later, when news of Shamima, Amira and Kadiza’s disappearance exploded across the media, it all made sense.
CCTV issued by Scotland Yard of (left to right) 15-year-old Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana, 16 and Shamima Begum, 15 at Gatwick airport
“That's how we all kind of fit the pieces together,” said Jon.
The students weren’t the only ones to grasp what had happened, the authorities did too.
Clearly fearful of more children leaving to join ISIS, a strict regime was installed to prevent anyone else slipping away.
“The next day every single kid that was close to them had to register with this police officer in the morning,” explained Jon.
“If you don't register, right in the morning, they will immediately call your family and if they don't pick up, they’d go to the house and see what's going on. It was very scary.
“Everything you did at school, the police had to know about.”
Jon was among those forced to sign in with the police. It was a daily requirement which lasted until he graduated several years later.
Banned from saying their names
As well as being treated with suspicion, Jon and his friends were banned from speaking about their classmates who’d disappeared.
Scared, confused and in desperate need of guidance, children were threatened with punishment for even mentioning their names.
“They wanted us to not speak about it, to keep it quiet and sweep it under the rug,” Jon explained.
He pointed out that the school had reasons to be concerned about its reputation.
Before the ‘Bethnal Green Trio’ its most famous alumni were the notorious London crime kingpins the Kray twins.
London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray had gone to the same school as Begum
(Image: Getty Images)
When Jon joined the school it had a reputation for knife crime and violence, which it had been steadily shedding with its increasingly impressive academic performance.
He believes the school didn’t want the latest episode disrupting its progress.
Less than a year after the girls went to Syria the school rebranded itself as Green Spring Academy Shoreditch.
“If you utter one word about it you were in detention,” Jon continued.
“It felt like you were in an authoritarian regime where you're controlled and can't say certain stuff.”
No support was offered to any of the students affected and the only direct effort to address the issue, that Jon remembered, was a 15 minute assembly which explained that ISIS was bad.
An ISIS fighter pictured in Raqqa in 2014 when the terrorist group held swathes of land
Publicly, however, a different story was being told.
A year after the girls disappeared, Secretary of State Nicky Morgan visited the school and gushed over head teacher Mark Keary and his staff’s “commitment [to a] tolerant environment where the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance are enshrined in everything [they do].”
Individual liberty, respect and the presumption of innocence were the opposite of how Jon and his friends were treated.
He describes his school experience after that as “being like North Korea.”
“There was no support. [The attitude was] if you spoke to them, you're part of them and you're under surveillance.”
The ban applied outside of school too.
As a consequence Jon and his friends became terrified to talk about the traumatising events at all, scared that they might be being spied on.
“We’d text each other all the time and we didn’t even want to do that because we were scared how we’d get tapped by the police.
Thousands were believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups during the Islamic State's height of powers
“The school had encouraged us to not to speak about it outside [and] had a history of going through people's phones, deleting messages and pictures.
“That's why we refused to talk about it, even on the phone, because we were scared we might get roped in.
“[We were worried they would say we were part of ISIS] but we're not, we were just kids, we were curious.”
‘I’d give Shamima a hug’
In the years that have followed her disappearance Jon has watched his school friend Shamima become a national hate figure.
The mere mention of her name sparks vicious online debates and her image is almost universally recognisable.
But Jon can still see the girl he met in year 7 and he feels sorry for her.
“[If I saw her again] the first thing I would do is give her a hug. I'm pretty sure she's been deprived from actual love
“She felt helpless, I'm pretty sure she still feels helpless, there's no support for her.”
Members of ISIS pose with the trademark Jihadist flag
He says some of her statements supporting the actions of ISIS made in interviews after her whereabouts was uncovered by a Times journalist in 2019, make him uncomfortable.
But overall he believes she deserves a chance to return to the UK.
“I always believe in second chances, people make mistakes," Jon said.
“I personally forgive her for trying to rope us into it.”
Like little kids being interrogated’
Rabia* was much younger than Shamima, Amira and Kadiza, but she remembers the three girls from the corridors of Bethnal Green Academy.
Being a shy girl from a Muslim background she was impressed by the confidence of these older girls who also wore the hijab to school.
“These were three girls we all kind of looked up to,” said Rabia.
“We saw them around, talking to teachers, talking to each other; so cool, so confident.
“[I thought] I want to be like those cool hijabi girls.”
Rabia also knew one of the girl's sisters, which made their sudden departure all the more shocking.
“It was a very weird thing for us to experience because these people that we just knew, three normal girls, suddenly fled and we heard about it all over the news," she explained.
Just like Jon, it transformed her school experience overnight.
“[After the girls left] there were police everywhere, in the library, outside the school always checking our bags.
“They said they were there in case we wanted to give any information, but felt like they were just watching over us, but not in a protective sort of way, more like; ‘oh, is this going to be the next kid who goes running off?’
“It was pretty intimidating, because I thought schools were meant to be a safe space.
“I remember seeing kids being taken by the police and the teachers, not like in handcuffs or anything, just taken away [and spoken to].
“[But it was] weird, like seeing little kids being interrogated.”
The refusal to discuss the girls, that Jon describes, was also something Rabia experienced, but she interpreted differently, she saw it as a form of protection for the younger students.
The girls were pupils at what was then known as the Bethnal Green Academy in east London
Despite the increased police presence, Rabia felt more in danger as a Muslim girl and her fears deepened after she was abused on her way home from school one day.
“[It was scary because] three girls had run off to join something that puts a bad name on me and my community.
“They went to join ISIS and as a Muslim hijabi girl, I felt really scared that someone was going to hurt me.
“One time I was walking with my two friends, they were also hijabi Muslim girls, and people were shouting at as us calling us ‘three terrorist girls’.
“We were like little kids, we didn't do anything wrong. [I was thinking] ‘why are you attacking us?’ It was really scary.
“That was something that stuck with me, because it was one of the first proper racist things I heard that were directed towards me and the fact that I was a hijabi.”
The school underwent management and name changes following the schoolgirls' disappearance
She said more should have been done to prepare and protect Muslim children from these types of attacks.
“I feel like they should have given a lot more support to the Muslim students, because we were getting harassed as kids outside.”
As well as people shouting abuse, strangers would blatantly stare at her and her friends, and ask for information on the Bethnal Green Trio.
Rabia was also targeted by journalists looking for a story about Bethnal Green Academy.
“For that period of time, random news reporters would try to come up to us and just harass us on our way home, some wouldn't leave us alone.
“[Others] were trying to be like undercover news reporters [not saying who they were]. Just trying to get stuff out of us. But we kind of clicked on to that.”
‘She looked so dumb’
Rabia is far less forgiving of Shamima than Jon.
She found the woman interviewed by the Times and BBC to be unrecognisable from the “cool hijabi girl” she once looked up to.
Rabia said: “She has become completely different. I know it’s kind of rude, but it's actually like she became so dumb.
“Seeing her on TV, she seemed like she went from this really confident, happy, smart person to someone with no common sense.
“It's like going there took everything away from her.”
Rabia sees her decision to join ISIS as a betrayal: “As a Muslim girl, she went to join a group that tries to make us look like the most horrible people.
“It's just like, how could you betray your people like that? How could you betray your family? and yourself?"
Rabia has little sympathy for her, although she does believe Shamima was groomed online.
“I understand that she was groomed," she said. "But she was a year 11 student, she wasn't a little kid.
“If I was her I know that I wouldn't have let myself get groomed to that extent.
“And as a Muslim you should know your own true values. If you're going to join something that tries to strip those values and tries to take your religion of peace and turn it into something disgusting and horrible, then that's on you.”
All three of Begum's children died
She said the whole episode did frighten her mother, particularly the idea that the internet could be used by extremists to reach inside the family home and radicalise her children.
Rabia too, was more aware of the dangers that lay on the internet and felt protective of her siblings as a result.
Shamima, Amira and Kadiza’s generation were one of the last to have known the school to have a bad reputation.
During the time the trio were there in the 2010s, things evolved, the academics improved substantially and there were opportunities from kids from all backgrounds.
That improvement has been somewhat clouded by a subsequent scandal involving cheating in exams, which saw the dismissal of several teachers including the head Mark Keary.
It also led to yet another name change, and it is now known as Mulberry Academy Shoreditch.
Ishmael* has fond memories of his time at the school and is grateful for the many opportunities it gave him.
“I noticed the school was very accommodating, regardless of religion, race or gender," he said.
“They had things like, ‘celebrating differences week’ where the school kind celebrated how, regardless of differences, you're unique, and brought in motivational speakers that had disabilities.”
When the girls went to Syria he remembers being scared and confused about what was happening.
“I was really nervous, hoping they were going to be okay," he said.
“I was just trying to understand, because I was young, what was happening? And how did it happen?"
He said these questions were relayed to teachers who struggled to find answers.
Despite feeling that what happened was very different to his school experience Ishmael still finds the stigma attaches itself to him.
When people find out what school he attended, they immediately associate it with Shamima Begum and ISIS.
Ishmael said even in his own mind he has to remind himself to focus on the positive.
“I think it's important to recognise all the great stuff that happened at the school too, not just this one incident.”
The cloud cast by the Bethnal Green trio is likely to last for some time yet.
The trauma the events caused are all the more lasting for the students it affected and the lack of support they received.
No one to answer the allegations
Due to the way the academy school system works, the local authority, Tower Hamlets, has never had responsibility for Bethnal Green Academy and therefore was unable to comment on what happened in 2015.
The autonomous nature of these schools also meant the Department for Education could not directly comment because academies are run and managed independently of government.
Therefore the only party who could answer the allegations made by the former students was the school itself.
However, Bethnal Green Academy no longer exists in the form it did in 2015.
Three years after the girl's disappearance it was taken over by the Mulberry Schools Trust and renamed Mulberry Academy Shoreditch.
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The school has completely new management, trustees and governors since the incident of 2015 and much of the teaching staff has changed.
My London attempted to contact former headteacher Mark Keary and track down other senior leaders, but received no response.
Mulberry Academy Shoreditch itself said it was unable to comment on any of the allegations because it was in effect a different school.
Essentially, there is no organisation liable for the safeguarding and support decisions taken by Bethnal Green Academy in 2015.
Currently the Department of Education requires schools to actively promote values such as individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.
Protecting children from radicalisation also forms one part of schools’ wider safeguarding duties, which also includes protecting them from drugs, gangs and sexual exploitation.
However, based on the Bethnal Green Trio episode, holding parties to account for historical failings remains a challenge.
Headteacher Mark Keary and deputy Alison Brannick did appear before a House of Commons select committee eight months after the girls went missing and offered an explanation of why their sudden attraction to ISIS was missed by the school.
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During his Keary said, in hindsight, the strategies for identifying at risk young people didn’t keep pace with the “process of radicalisation that had evolved over quite a few years” and that examples tended to focus on “the stereotype of the angry young man, with that gradual disaffection.”
He added the school had been “under huge scrutiny from counter-terrorism and from the police” who went through “in great detail the school’s processes and mechanisms” in relation to the girls disappearance and many other groups had failed to spot the signs.
“Professional counter-terrorism officers or the families themselves, did not notice that the girls had exhibited any of those symptoms or those characteristics. We were quite focused […] on looking for symptoms of radicalisation that on this occasion just simply did not come to light.” he said.
Addressing what efforts had been made following the girls leaving, deputy head Brannick said the school held “assemblies ourselves regarding raising the awareness of extremism and the radicalisation of young people.”
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She said Bethnal Green Academy had been inundated by offers to help from outside agencies.
But the school had only decided to work with “Home Office-approved providers” only, and as a result no non-governmental organisations came to support the school.
Explaining the approach of the Metropolitan Police, a spokesperson said: “The priority of the police investigation when the three girls were reported missing in February 2015 was their safety and wellbeing. We were clear from the start that we wanted to try and stop the girls from reaching Syria, so that they could be returned safely home.
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“This involved extensive and fast-time enquiries being carried out including with the girls' families, students and teachers from their school, and with international partners in order to understand why and how the girls were travelling and to give ourselves the best chance of finding them.
“As we said in 2015, our focus was not to criminalise anyone, but to prevent tragedies and support the girls and their families.”
The spokesperson added: “Whilst concerns over young people travelling out to Syria to join terrorist organisations has diminished in recent years, concerns over young people being radicalised and drawn into terrorism and violent extremism – particularly online – remain high."
“Advice and information on the signs of radicalisation is available on the ACT Early website and we would encourage anyone who may have concerns to get in touch with police.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.