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Joshua Baker on the life of Shamima Begum and ISIS

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2015, three teenage girls disappeared from their homes in London. Their goal - to join the terrorist group known as ISIS. When their departure was discovered, their desperate families tried everything they could think of to stop them - reaching out to the media, some even traveling to Turkey to try to find the girls before they entered Syria. But they didn't succeed, and the girls disappeared into new lives in the Islamic State until years later, when one of them reemerged - Shamima Begum. Now, at 23, she's being held in an ISIS detention camp in Syria. Her U.K. citizenship has been revoked, and she says she wants to go back home to London.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "I'M NOT A MONSTER: THE SHAMIMA BEGUM STORY")

SHAMIMA BEGUM: I'm not a bad person. I'm not this person that they think I am being perceived as in the media. You know, I'm just so much more than ISIS, and I'm so much more than everything that I've been through.

MARTIN: Her remarkable story and the story wrapped around it are the subject of a new BBC podcast called "I'm Not A Monster: The Shamima Begum Story." It's by investigative journalist Josh Baker, who has had remarkable access to Begum, meeting with her at the detention camp where she's being held, interviewing her for hours. But he doesn't just have her take on events. He fact-checks and retraces her journey from London to Syria. When we spoke, Baker told me how he first learned about Begum's story back in 2015.

JOSH BAKER: I was in a place called East London Mosque making a documentary about one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe. And while I was there making this documentary, I was filming one day, and it became clear that three girls had disappeared from the community. And those three girls turned out to be Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. Now, the mosque became sort of like this focal point for authorities, for the families of the girls and, indeed, for the media. And it sort of transitioned from being this extraordinary, you know, story of potential hope to stop the girls reaching IS-controlled Syria.

Now, at that point, I sort of followed the family for a little while and then forgot about it until seven years later, when I was in Syria doing some other work. And I got a chance to sit down with Shamima Begum. And at that point, it became clear that she wanted to give me what she says is her full account of everything that has happened over the last almost eight years now.

MARTIN: Let's just start with a basic question that some people might have, which is why do we want to hear from her? I mean, there are those who think, you know, she - obviously, she wasn't an adult, but she was old enough to have some common sense, let's say. And she made this decision, and it didn't turn out the way she would have liked. So why do you think we should hear from her?

BAKER: We're doing this at this moment because Shamima Begum's lawyers are fighting for her to come back to the U.K. They say that the government didn't consider her age properly or that she was a victim of grooming before they took her citizenship. Now, we're in this unique position where the courts of this country, the authorities, haven't been able to get the account that we have. Now, as a team of investigative journalists, we're sort of picking that apart to find out, you know, what really did happen here? Because so much has been said about Shamima Begum, but very little is really known about what happened.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say it is fascinating. I mean, if you haven't already made your mind up - and I recognize that some people have - that it is - it's just very interesting. I mean, and it's immersive and it's vast. I mean, you go from London to Turkey to Syria. As we said, you kind of retrace her steps. But we also do hear from her. I just want to play a short clip of an exchange that the two of you had. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "I'M NOT A MONSTER: THE SHAMIMA BEGUM STORY")

BAKER: But do you understand why society has so much anger towards you?

BEGUM: Yes, I do understand. But I don't think it's actually towards me. I think it's towards ISIS. But when they think of ISIS, they think of me because I've been put on the media so much.

BAKER: But they only did that because you chose to go to ISIS.

BEGUM: But what was there to obsess over? We went to ISIS. That was it. It was over. It was over and done with. What more is there to say? Like, they just wanted to continue the story because it was a story. It was the big story.

BAKER: But you do accept that you did join a terrorist group.

BEGUM: Yes. I did.

MARTIN: You raise some important points here. I mean, she was 15. And it's interesting, you know, we don't seem to have settled on how much, as a society - I mean, I'm thinking in, you know, countries like the U.K., like the United States, where systems of law do make distinctions between adults - people who have reached the age of majority and people who have not. She's certainly an adult now. Do you mind if I ask, do you think she has remorse for what she did or what she has done? Or do you think she just has remorse for how it's turned out?

MARTIN: I think so. That's a really good question. I think when you talk with Shamima Begum, you have to kind of navigate, if you will, three personalities. There is a personality of a 15-year-old girl who's quite naive. Then there is the personality of a girl who had her formative years inside a terrorist state, and with that comes quite a single-mindedness and a bluntness to her. And then there's the girl that's spent the last four years - or the woman, I should say - that spent the last four years in a detention camp, basically reflecting upon the decisions that she made and the things that she was part of.

I think, at times, Shamima Begum genuinely does show remorse and contrition. And then other times, I think she's still trying to really grasp what she was part of. And at the end of the day, we have to remember she joined a group that committed genocide, committed atrocities around the world, and her membership of that group gives her some responsibility. And so I think she's still wrestling with that part of it.

MARTIN: Can I ask about her family? I mean, her family made it clear that they didn't agree with this. I mean, there were some really heartfelt and emotional interviews with them where they were just desperate to, what they thought, were saving her, and she didn't want to be saved. I mean, there was this one kind of chilling exchange where you, you know, ask about, you know, her mother calling, and she didn't say any - her mother was sobbing, and she kind of took it as her trying to guilt trip her into coming back, which...

BAKER: No...

MARTIN: I mean...

BAKER: You're completely right. And that sort of touches on what I said earlier. The Shamima you're seeing there - that is the Shamima Begum of the caliphate. And I think, you know, it shows a bit of a harsh logic there. It is also - you know, I really feel for this family because they have been put through so much. I mean, Shamima Begum left her mother at a bus stop and didn't give her a hug goodbye. Her mother hasn't seen her for eight years. So this family have not only suffered because of the actions of their daughter, but, to be fair to them, you know, have had an awful time in the media as well. It is a story that has had a lot of attention. And I know it's been very hard on them.

MARTIN: Why? Because people blame them for her leaving, they think that they must have been part of her ideology in some way? Or just the experience of, from their perspective, losing a child and then losing a child to something so awful. I mean, is it - do you have any sense of where they are now?

BAKER: Yeah, I think it's both of those things and more. I think, you know, you - as you say, you have the difficulty that comes with somebody - you know, essentially a loss, your child being at home one day and then not the next. But also in reference to the media points, there was an awful lot of attention on this story. So they couldn't even grieve or deal with it in private. And they attempted to use the media, which was probably the right thing to do at the time, as a way to launch an appeal. But what that did is it made it the big story. So I think where they're at today is that they are - they would probably say that they don't want to be in the media life if they can avoid it, and they are desperate for their daughter to come home.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, Josh, I mean, as I said, it's a remarkable achievement. But at the heart of the podcast, as you said, is a question - is Shamima Begum a terrorist or is she a victim of grooming and trafficking? And do you mind if I ask, after spending some time reporting this, what do you think?

BAKER: I think you'll have to listen and wait till Episode 10. But as is the way with these things, the truth is never black and white.

MARTIN: That's Josh Baker, an investigative journalist. You can stream his ten-part series "I'm Not A Monster: The Shamima Begum Story" wherever you get your podcasts. Josh Baker, thanks so much for sharing your work with us.

BAKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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