Widowed, homeless, having already lost two young children and utterly alone save for the unborn child she is soon to give birth to in a Syrian detention camp, one might expect to detect a note of contrition in the east London accent of teen jihadi bride Shamima Begum.

Yet this was startlingly absent from the 19-year-old's testimony about life in the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil/Isis) – a period which "actually really did" fulfil her aspirations, she told the journalist who discovered her. "It was like a normal life. Like the life they show in the propaganda videos. But every now and then there are bombs and stuff."

The only flicker of disillusionment came from its "corruption and oppression". That this didn't stretch to discovering the severed head of an enemy soldier in a rubbish bin hints at the extent to which the poisonous ideology of the extremist group has warped her young mind.

Begum is one of 1,323 foreign women and children from Isis families to have arrived at the al-Hawl, northern Syria's so-called 'Camp of Death,' in the past two months, fleeing the battle of Baghuz where the remnants of the terrorist group are fighting to the death on a sliver of territory on the banks of the Euphrates.

Shamima Begum before she fled London to join Isis. Photo / Getty Images
Shamima Begum before she fled London to join Isis. Photo / Getty Images

Foreign jihadi wives are tightly controlled in the camp and restricted to a designated section without any access to mobile phones, while local intelligence units discern their level of indoctrination and the potential threat they pose.

The successful recruitment of foreign women is something which marks Isis out from other terrorist groups. From the official declaration of its territory in 2014 Isis recruiters displayed an extraordinary ability to attract and recruit young Western women, in spite of shredding their rights to naught.

What led those like Begum to abandon their lives, as she did in 2015, and align themselves to its barbarous ideology? Only now, as they emerge from the ruins of the so-called caliphate, might we begin to understand the motives of a jihadi bride.

Gina Vale, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, co-authored a major report last summer which shed light not just on the actual number of women and minors who had travelled to join Isis but the threat they pose on their return.

Of 850 British citizens affiliated with the terror group, the study found 145 were women and 50 minors. Although only two women are confirmed among the 425 British jihadists believed to have returned to the UK, this is thought to underestimate the true picture.

Some women compelled to undertake Hijra (emigration to Isis territory) expressed a desire to conduct violence in the name of the Islamic State's cause; for others, it was ideological fervour, or a desire to join those with whom they had previously spoken online.

Shamima Begum ran away from Britain to join Islamic State extremists in Syria four years ago and now wants to come back to London. Photo / AP
Shamima Begum ran away from Britain to join Islamic State extremists in Syria four years ago and now wants to come back to London. Photo / AP

Begum and her two Bethnal Green school friends Kadiza Sultana, then 16, and Amira Abase, 15, had spoken online with another British jihadi teenager, Aqsa Mahmood who was a prominent propagandist for the group.

On Twitter, Mahmood described the joys of being a wife to would-be recruits: "Only after becoming the wife of a Mujahid do you realise why there is so much reward in this action," she wrote.


Others, Vale says, travelled simply for a sense of "sisterhood". "They said they were entering a new family, for marriage or to raise a child and to grow up themselves in what they saw to be an ideologically legitimate Islamic state."

US academic Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell: the Many Faces of Women and Terrorism and the forthcoming Veiled Threats: Women and Jihad, likens the Isis use of social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Telegram, and Kik to that of paedophiles grooming children. Recruiters proved highly skilled at using the internet to disseminate propaganda, showering women with offers of friendship and belonging.

Others were incited by bloodshed. Zahra Halane, who fled Manchester with her 16-year-old twin, Salma, posted on Twitter about her frustration at not being allowed to commit violence after arriving in Syria. "Maybe one day soon, it might just happen … which I cannot wait for", she wrote.

Bloom explains that female Isis recruits were persuaded joining the group would be an adventure – the chance to become a "founding mother" of a divinely driven utopia. "They are led to believe that all worldly pursuits pale into insignificance compared with serving the Isis jihad", she says.

The reality is they were used for what Bloom calls the 'three Rs': to recruit, retain male foreign fighters and, above all, to reproduce the next generation of jihadis.

The testimony of Begum, who within 10 days of arrival was married to a foreign fighter and could not leave the house without his permission, is not uncommon. Through interviews with other women who lived under Isis, Vale has pieced together a picture of what it was like for women to live under the so-called caliphate.

CCTV footage shows Kadiza Sultana, left, Shamima Begum, centre, and Amira Abase, right, going through security at Gatwick airport before catching their flight to Turkey. Photo / AP
CCTV footage shows Kadiza Sultana, left, Shamima Begum, centre, and Amira Abase, right, going through security at Gatwick airport before catching their flight to Turkey. Photo / AP

To ensure no illegitimate mixing between the sexes women, were not allowed to move freely without a mahram (male guardian). They were required to dress in a full-body abaya and niqab. Vale says, over time, increasing restrictions were placed on clothing to the point where even their eyes needed to be covered with several layers of thick cloth.

Women who did not adhere to these strict codes of behaviour or dress were punished for being too promiscuous.

Much of the enforcement was carried out by all-female morality police, known as the al-Khansaa Brigade, who were permitted to carry AK47s, drive, and arrest and torture women who did not conform. Vale describes them as the enforcers of a "warped sense of Islamist feminism".

Even for a group as keen to emphasise its barbarism as Isis, Vale says the execution of women was rarely publicly promoted – which is not to say it did not take place. A recent discovery of mass graves in former Isis territory near Mosul contains the bodies of beheaded women.

Everything about the role of a bride, according to Vale's research, was to support their husband in jihad. Propaganda even suggested the right recipes for meat stews and pancakes to fuel success on the battlefield. Male fighters would receive a monthly salary depending on their set-up, at one stage receiving $50 for each wife (they were allowed up to four), $35 for each child under 15 and $50 for each sex slave. While the official mourning period for a widow was three months, over time, as the group has grown more desperate for recruits, women who have lost their husbands have been forced to remarry almost immediately afterwards.

Listen to Begum's matter-of-fact descriptions of caliphate life and you glean a sense of the weight of this propaganda to persuade women they were serving some divine cause.

Bloom believes she is experiencing "cognitive dissonance – an inability to realise travelling to Syria was a fundamental mistake" – and says this makes her an especially precarious candidate for reintegration to Britain. Vale remains more hopeful, however, that with specialist support, Begum may one day be able to realise the horrors the Islamic State inflicted on others, and herself.

For now, though, she speaks coldly and without remorse; as its servant.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph.