Shamima Begum’s school days: Students speak about ‘cool girl with terror badge’ but say ‘I forgive her for trying to recruit me for ISIS’

Publication Date18 Jun 2021
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.

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 things about 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, who is not from a Muslim background, also found the pitch appealing.

'It's the next big thing'

The overarching message Shamima and Amira delivered was not hate or violence, it was a dream of a perfect society.

He 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.”

Being a fairly typical teenager, Jon didn’t keep up with the news, he wasn’t aware there was a brutal civil war tearing the middle eastern country apart.

He only realised later, the group Shamima and Azira wanted him to join was the Islamic State In Syria or ISIS. The black symbol he’d noticed on their blazers, it 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 Shamima 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.

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 articles have been written about the three girls who travelled to Syria in February 2015, none so far have spoken to their peers.

But, after months of research, My London found students who attended BGA around the same time as Shamima, Amira and Kadiza, willing to speak about what went on.

This is the story of the students who were caught up in the biggest scandal to hit the education system in decades.

It reveals how the children most affected by this traumatic set of events felt unsupported and in some cases treated like criminals.

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.

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...

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