Shamima Begum's classmates: 'She was the cool girl with a terror badge'

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The story of Shamima Begum is among the ones told in documentary 'The Return: Life After ISIS'. (MetFilm/Sky)
Classmates of former Isis bride Shamima Begum have told how she tried to recruit them to join the terror group. (MetFilm/Sky)

Classmates of former Isis bride Shamima Begum have said she was a "cool girl" who wore a badge to signify her allegiance to the militant Islamic group.

Begum, now 21, fled east London for Syria in 2015 with two friends – Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase – and married a Dutch jihadi. She had three children, all of whom died of disease or malnutrition.

In 2019, then home secretary Sajid Javid stripped Begum of her British citizenship after she said in an interview that the Manchester Arena bombing was “justified”.

She has fought a long legal battle against the ruling, but the Supreme Court backed the move to strip her of her citizenship.

Rabia – not her real name – remembers Begum and her friends from the corridors of Bethnal Green Academy, where they all studied.

Classmates of Shamima Begum from Bethnal Green Academy - renamed Mulberry Academy Shoreditch -  have spoken of their memories of the former ISIS bride (Bethnal Green Academy/Reach)
Classmates of Shamima Begum from her time at Bethnal Green Academy – now renamed Mulberry Academy Shoreditch – have spoken of their memories of the former ISIS bride. (Bethnal Green Academy/Reach)

A shy girl from a Muslim background, Rabia was impressed by the confidence of the older girls, who also wore the hijab to school.

“These were three girls we all kind of looked up to,” she said. “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.”

Classmate Jon – whose name has also been changed to protect his identity – noticed matching pins on the lapels of Begum and her friend Amira Abase’s blazers.

“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.”

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Jon, who shared many lessons with the two girls, said they tried to recruit him and others to join Isis. 

They spoke with such knowledge and maturity, he said, that their words often sounded like they’d been scripted by adults.

Previously known for their love of reading and high grades, the friends had become obsessed with the Islamic religious group.

“They’d start talking about religion and try to rope people in,” Jon said.

“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'.”

Chats took place at school, although Abase also contacted him on BlackBerry Messenger. They never spoke on Facebook or any other platforms “that could be tracked”.

Jon said Abase 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," he said. 

"So in my experience, it was scary."

Piers Morgan says ISIS bride Shamima Begum should go 'f**k herself'
Shamima Begum says she now wants to help 'rehabilitate' others. (PA)

But Jon, who is not from a Muslim background, also found the pitch appealing. 

The overarching message was not hate or violence, he said, it was a dream of a perfect society.

“[They told me] there's a community in Syria," he said. "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.”

In her latest interview, Begum insisted she did not need to be rehabilitated and said she wants to return to the UK after she was stripped of her British citizenship.

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Speaking from the al-Roj prison camp in Syria, wearing a leather baseball cap and skinny jeans, Begum spoke of how she left Bethnal Green six years ago.

Mail Online reported that she told journalist Andrew Drury for his film Danger Zone: “I don't think I was a terrorist.

“I think I was just a dumb kid who made one mistake.

“I personally don't think that I need to be rehabilitated, but I would want to help other people be rehabilitated. I would love to help.”

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