'There are three Shamima Begums - you never know which you'll get'

Josh Baker spoke with the former Isis recruit on a number of occasions and retraced her route into Syria from Turkey

ROJ CAMP, NE SYRIA - MARCH 14: British-born Shamima Begum from Bethnal Green in London, who joined Islamic State in Syria aged 15 in 2015, is photographed at Roj Camp, where she is currently interred with other women who were members of Islamic State, on March 14, 2021, in Roj camp, Syria. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)
Shamima Begum joined Islamic State in Syria aged 15 in 2015. Her British citizenship was revoked as a result. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

There are three different versions of Shamima Begum and "you never know which one you will get", according to a documentary maker who spent an extensive amount of time with the former Isis recruit.

Joshua Baker, who interviewed Begum for podcast and investigative documentary The Shamima Begum Story, spoke to Yahoo News UK after the Special Immigration Appeals Commission upheld the Home Office's 2019 decision to strip Begum of her British citizenship.

"There are three different personalities in play in any one conversation with Shamima Begum and as a journalist you have to try to navigate all three of them," he said.

The now 23-year-old, who fled the UK for Syria aged 15, is at times a shy schoolgirl, a single-minded Isis recruit and a woman who has suffered immense loss, Baker explained.

"There is quite literally still the shy 15-year-old girl who left London, who was probably quite naive. Also she has described it at that point as being 'in love with the idea of joining Isis', not really grasping the severity of what she's got involved with.

"That naivety, that lack of understanding of the severity is very much there."

Baker also described a "girl who has spent her formative years inside a terror state", commenting Begum has a "kind of blunt single-mindedness" and is unable to think critically about issues like whether it is right for the UK to prosecute her.

"The third one is the woman who spent four years in a detention camp in northeast Syria, has lost five kids (two through miscarriage, two through starvation and one through pneumonia) and has been reflecting on the her decisions," Baker explained

"That person is very different from the person we've seen in the media and has an ability to think critically, an ability to reflect upon the situation and potentially be, some would say, almost to a detriment, honest with me in a way that people would not expect. That's when she says things like "I was in love with the idea of joining Isis" — that's a pretty full-on admission.

"You have all these personalities in play and sometimes she is honest, sometimes she is trying to deceive, and you're never sure which Shamima you are going to get on a given day."

Baker's comments follow those of journalist Andrew Drury, who has also previously interviewed Begum, and said he did not believe Begum was a victim.

He spoke after her lawyers argued there was clear evidence she had been trafficked to Syria for the purposes of sexual exploitation, with a judge concluding this was likely.

"Everyone is an individual, responsible to some degree for their own actions. She was certainly mature enough to get herself through airports and over the Turkish-Syrian border. This isn’t a dumb kid," Drury wrote in The Spectator this week.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: (EDITORS NOTE: FACE IN PHOTO BEING HELD DELIBERATELY COVERED BY SISTER) Renu Begum, eldest sister of Shamima Begum, 15, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed by the media at New Scotland Yard, as the relatives of three missing schoolgirls believed to have fled to Syria to join Islamic State have pleaded for them to return home, on February 22, 2015 in London, England. Police are urgently trying to trace Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-old Amira Abase after they flew to Istanbul in Turkey from Gatwick Airport on Tuesday. (Photo by Laura Lean - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Shamima Begum, now 23, has been unsuccessful in her attempts to appeal the decision to remove her British citizenship. (Getty Images)

"During the time I spent with her I also went from thinking that she had been groomed to thinking that she was trying to groom me," he added.

In the run-up to the appeal, Begum spoke with a number of media outlets in what MI5 deemed an "attempt to obtain favourable media coverage" for her case, according to the court judgement released this week.

“In September and November 2021, Ms Begum was interviewed by Good Morning Britain and Sky News. She denied reports in the media that she had sewn suicide vests or been part of ISIL’s [Isis] morality police and claimed that her activities were limited to being a housewife and mother," the judgement read.

“The MI5 assessment is that many of the comments Ms Begum made in her later interviews are likely to have been self-serving and an attempt to obtain favourable media coverage in the run-up to this appeal.”

Other journalists who have interviewed the former Bethnal Green schoolgirl at the Roj Camp in northeast Syria, where she has been held since 2019, have spoken of her intelligence.

Begum has told reporters her previous pro-Isis comments were to protect herself from repercussions inside the camp. Journalist Richard Pendlebury referred to her in a 2019 interview as "convincingly disenchanted by her experiences".

Numerous commentators have attempted to discern whether Begum is a threat, a victim, or rehabilitated following her time inside the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State.

Baker observes: "You can be a victim of trafficking and be a threat. That is just true.

"Anyone who has been with Isis could pose a threat to us in the UK. The problem is with that conversation in the UK typically is it doesn't look at the situation as a whole.

"Security experts, serving and retired, and people with knowledge on the ground in Syria will tell you that the idea that leaving these people over there makes us safer is not correct, because what happens in these camps is people escape and they regroup and they rejoin Isis."

Begum's lawyers have said the case is "nowhere near over", insisting there are numerous avenues to pursue an appeal. And while Begum will have been disappointed by the result, Baker says she will not have been surprised.

He told Yahoo News UK: "Shamima Begum thinks she will never come home, and feels like the camp she has been left in is her punishment for being part of what she calls 'one of the worst things in the 21st century'."

BBC podcast I'm Not a Monster: The Shamima Begum Story is out now.