Exclusive pictures: Shamima Begum seen in Western clothes as she seeks break with IS past

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Shamima Begum photographed at Roj camp in northeast Syria  - Sam Tarling
Shamima Begum photographed at Roj camp in northeast Syria - Sam Tarling

Shamima Begum stands out from the crowd in the camp for Islamic State supporters and their relatives in northeast Syria.

With her straightened hair and Western clothing, Ms Begum today looks nothing like the niqab-clad teen who became the poster child for Britain’s so-called “Isil brides” after running away from her Bethnal Green school to marry a jihadi in Syria in Feb 2015.

Ms Begum, who was wearing trendy sunglasses and a striped T-shirt, shook hands with The Telegraph on Sunday but politely declined to be interviewed, due to legal advice.

Chatting with her friends by a row of concrete shops, the group’s hoop earrings contrasted sharply with the head scarfs and modest Islamic dress of most of the women in the bleak detention centre.

By the time Ms Begum was discovered in another squalid detention camp for Islamic State supporters in Feb 2019, she was mourning the death of her two children after fleeing the final fighting that marked the collapse of the group’s caliphate.

Since then her third child has died and the Government has stripped her citizenship on national security grounds, citing her as a threat to public safety.

Now 21, Ms Begum has languished in Roj for two years while her lawyers challenge the decision to revoke her citizenship. During this time her appearance has gradually changed as she first abandoned the black full length gown and later stopped wearing headscarves.

Today she looks more suited to a shopping trip on Oxford Street than life in a camp for hardened jihadists.

But knowing what Ms Begum thinks has become more difficult since she has stopped speaking to journalists following the frenzied media attention after her early interviews.

Ms Begum has been held in Syria for some two years  - Sam Tarling
Ms Begum has been held in Syria for some two years - Sam Tarling

Initially Ms Begum said she had no regrets about joining Islamic State, though she later said that she had spoken while in shock and out of fear of retribution.

On Sunday she greeted The Telegraph with a handshake and a weary refusal to speak on record, though she did consent to be photographed.

Ms Begum’s case has become emblematic of the fate of several dozen British women living in Roj camp, many of whom have also had their citizenship revoked, and many of whom have children.

Eight other British women declined interviews with The Telegraph on Sunday, several citing legal advice. All were polite, with one woman saying “thanks for coming all this way”.

Another woman said her son urgently needed to return home to seek medical care that was not available in the camp.

“We hope to go back home soon,” one said.

Camp manager Nora Abdo said the British women in Roj routinely decline media requests on advice from their lawyers. They are well-behaved and cause no problems at the camp, she added.

Women in the camp now exist on a spectrum from those who remained committed Islamic State ideologues and those who have totally rejected the ideology, but Ms Abdo said the general trend was towards a rejection of the group.

“We’ve noticed the change in their clothing,” she said. “They want to come home. They say they’re ready to pay the punishment for their crimes. Some are thinking about the future for their kids.”

An academic who speaks regularly with Islamic State members and the women in the camps said that a woman forgoing the veil was a genuine sign that she no longer supported the group.

“I don’t think it’s a strategy, a woman who is pro-ISIS wouldn’t take it off to get repatriated,” said Vera Mironova, who is a research fellow at Harvard University.

Removing the veil comes at a cost, Ms Mironova said, as committed Islamic State supporters in the camp have better access to money and other contraband such as mobile phones through their networks.

Shamima Begum is being held at Roj camp with a group of other British wives of Islamic State fighters  - Sam Tarling
Shamima Begum is being held at Roj camp with a group of other British wives of Islamic State fighters - Sam Tarling

Western women in the camp often have less access to money, Ms Mironova said, due to the threat of Western governments using anti-terror legislation to prosecute families who send funds to relatives in the camp.

One European woman in the camp told The Telegraph that after earlier removing her veil, she had taken to wearing it again to curry favour with the camp’s Islamic State supporters, who remain well-connected.

But Ms Begum and her group of friends – whose nationalities include Canadian, American, French and German – had nothing to do with the Islamic State supporters, the woman said.

File image of Shamima Begum wearing an Islamic head covering  - Sam Tarling
File image of Shamima Begum wearing an Islamic head covering - Sam Tarling

“Some people are still Daesh groupies,” the woman said, using another name for IS. “But I don’t think they’re dangerous, and they’re very few. People are tired and most have changed.”

Camp administrators say the 2,618 people living in Roj are more secure and better provisioned than the 62,000 people living in the sprawling Al-Hol camp, where a string of murders have been reported in recent months.

“There are no tent burnings or violence here,” said Ms Abdo, the manager.

Both Roj and Al-Hol are run by a Western-backed militia in a corner of Syria somewhat removed from the fighting that has destroyed much of the rest of the country in the past decade.

But during an Oct 2019 Turkish-backed military offensive against the Kurdish-led militia, an estimated 750 IS-affiliated women and their children were reported to have escaped from another camp at Ain Issa. Some women in Roj camp now say they pray that similar fighting nearby could offer them a chance to escape.

But Ms Abdo, the manager, said her biggest concern was the children growing up in the camp abandoned by their governments.

“When they grow up they will hate their homeland, and this will have consequences,” she said.

“This should not be their life. What about their future?”