She loved Rihanna, clothes and make-up… then fell under the spell of Islamists: How the FIRST British schoolgirl, 15, fled to join ISIS
- Sharmeena Begum has been named as first girl to flee UK to join jihadis
- The 15-year-old is believed to be in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria
- She left her home in Bethnal Green in December to join frontline extremists
- Months later three girls from the same school crossed border from Turkey
- Sharmeena’s father claims she was targeted following her mother’s death
- He says extremists contacted her mobile phone when she was vulnerable
She loved Rihanna, clothes and make-up. Then she fell under the spell of Islamists: Jihadi girl’s father tells how shadowy ISIS extremists targeted his daughter’s iPhone
by Emine Sinmaz, Sue Reid and Sam Marsden
To her adoring father, she was just like any other 15-year-old.
Sharmeena Begum loved shopping at Forever 21, listening to Rihanna and watching EastEnders.
A keen pupil, she would chatter excitedly to her father about her dreams of becoming a doctor. And of course, like most of her schoolmates, she was utterly obsessed with her mobile.
Like most fathers, Mohammad Uddin saw nothing sinister in her constant tapping away on her iPhone.
He assumed she was using Twitter and the instant messaging service WhatsApp simply to chat with her friends.
Only now does he know the horrifying truth – that Sharmeena was being groomed through the internet by shadowy IS extremists.
The 38-year-old father discovered too late what was going on under his nose.
His daughter is now living in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, in Syria, as a jihadi bride – and has told him she will never return. Last night Mr Uddin told of his belief that sinister IS recruiters had taken advantage of Twitter and WhatsApp to corrupt his daughter.
She had told him she was too sick to go to school the day before she fled, last December 6. But she met up with her best friends – Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15 – at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, east London, that evening.
Sharmeena bought an iPhone 5S and some new clothes, apparently using £500 she persuaded her grandmother to hand over a few weeks earlier.
The four girls had been inseparable at Bethnal Green Academy, a school rated outstanding by Ofsted. They were so close that Sharmeena invited the other three to her father’s wedding when he married for a second time in September.
Mr Uddin, a waiter at a central London restaurant, urged police to speak to the other teenagers after his daughter vanished, and even suggested they might have considered running away with her.
‘I said [to officers], “Keep an eye on the three girls, maybe they’ll give you a clue.” Shamima, Kadiza, and Amira were her closest friends,’ he said.
‘I was pretty sure when my daughter went missing that the four girls would have gone together. And when I realised [they hadn’t] I was surprised.
‘I went to Bethnal Green Academy two days later, on the Monday, and I spoke to the deputy headmistress and I asked to speak to the three girls.
This is the schoolgirl who led her three best friends to Syria after she was radicalised under the nose of her father.Sharmeena Begum, who fled Britain to join Islamic State in December, can be named today as the first of four GCSE pupils at the same school to become jihadi brides.The 15-year-old is believed to be in the IS stronghold of Raqqa with Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15. Last night her father said he had no idea that his daughter, who loved watching EastEnders and wanted to be a doctor, was being groomed to join the terror group.Mohammad Uddin believes that Sharmeena was targeted through her phone by shadowy IS recruiters who exploited her vulnerability after the death of her mother. ‘Every parent should check what their children are doing on their phones at every moment,’ said the 38-year-old.He also said his daughter’s school had ignored his warning to ‘keep an eye’ on her three best friends after she vanished in December. He questioned the trio about her disappearance but they denied all knowledge.The girls said only that Sharmeena had been in covert phone contact with an unknown woman. ‘I feel angry about the people who have encouraged her,’ he told the Mail in an exclusive interview.‘And I think the police should monitor the internet more because it’s destroying lives. It’s not fair. Not only my daughter’s, but her three friends, and I don’t know how many more it has destroyed.’ And Mr Uddin issued an emotional plea to his only child, saying: ‘Wherever you are, please come back. I’m missing you lots. I need to get my daughter back. Every night and every day is difficult – she was my one and only child. I wish she would contact me to say she is well. That would help me.’Mr Uddin also revealed that: Sharmeena had been a typical teenager who enjoyed listening to pop music and going shopping; She started visiting the mosque and wearing Islamic dress after her mother died of cancer last year at 33; Police told him two women encouraged Sharmeena to join IS and took her to Gatwick for her flight to Istanbul; He last heard from her two weeks after she vanished, when she called to say: ‘I’m in Islamic State and I’m not coming back.’ Mr Uddin said Kadiza, Shamima and Amira came to visit him at his home in east London two days after Sharmeena vanished.
Recalling the conversation, he said: ‘I asked the girls about Sharmeena. I said “You guys are best friends” and they told me “We don’t know anything”.
‘I said “She will have shared everything with you guys, you come to my home every week”. They then said that sometimes she spoke to a girl privately.
‘They said “When the girl calls her on the phone, she steps away from us and when we asked about the girl, she said it’s private, I’ll tell you later”.’ After Sharmeena fled, Mr Uddin also told detectives to keep an eye on his daughter’s three closest friends.
Sharmeena fled to Syria after persuading her grandmother to give her £500 and to hand over her passport.
In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, she started skipping class at Bethnal Green Academy, deactivated her social media accounts and began learning the Arabic for phrases like ‘I’m hungry’.
Her father had no idea what she was planning and was left distraught when she failed to come home after an overnight stay at her grandmother’s house.
When he rang Sharmeena’s mobile phone and heard a foreign dial tone, he called Scotland Yard to report her gone. Mr Uddin said: ‘The police told me it’s possible Sharmeena has joined Islamic State.’
Police have faced criticism for not telling the other three girls’ parents that Sharmeena had gone missing so they could monitor them more closely.
Officers handed the trio letters to give to their families asking for permission to question them further, but the teenagers apparently failed to hand over the notes.
Mr Uddin said he regretted not speaking to the girls’ parents before they too travelled to Syria after flying from London to Turkey on February 17.
‘When I saw the news I thought maybe I could have helped if I had said something,’ he said.
‘But their families should have thought their daughter’s good friend is missing and maybe hidden their passports.’
Mr Uddin said the last call from his daughter came from a private number: ‘She told me “I’m happy here. I went by my own decision. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK”. I asked her “Where are you? Tell me, wherever you are, I’ll come”.
‘She told me, “No, you can’t come here.” And she started crying. We were both crying.
‘She didn’t make it to the Islamic State the same day [she fled], she was in Turkey for a few days.’
Scotland Yard has said that two women, aged 20 and 21, were arrested in north London on February 19 over Sharmeena’s disappearance.
The suspects were held on suspicion of an offence under the Child Abduction Act before being bailed until next month. At least 22 young women, most of them aged under 20, are feared to have travelled to Syria from the UK over the past year.
Sharmeena was born to Bangladeshi parents in Tower Hamlets, east London, in 1999. She was largely brought up by her mother Shahnaz Begum until 2007, when her father moved to Britain.
Mrs Begum was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2013 and told she had only six months left to live. She kept this secret from her daughter for as long as possible.
Recalling the moment their GP broke the news to Sharmeena, Mr Uddin said: ‘It was two months before her mother died.
‘She was crying loads, but I told her: “Everyone is going to die. Today it’s your mum, tomorrow it could be me. We need to be patient”.’ Growing up in a modest two-bedroom council flat in Bethnal Green just a stone’s throw from the trendy bars and coffee shops of Shoreditch, Sharmeena harboured ambitions to become a doctor or a teacher and achieved top grades in English, her favourite subject.
She was an ordinary teenager who loved shopping for clothes and make-up. But after her mother died in January last year, aged just 33, she changed and began taking an intense interest in Islam, spending most of her free time praying in her room.
Mr Uddin said: ‘I thought this was normal because she lost the closest person to her, and she’s an only child. Before then she wasn’t very religious. She wouldn’t go to the mosque and she would wear English dress.
‘But then she changed her dressing style and wore a scarf and started praying five times a day.
‘Sometimes she would go to the East London Mosque for prayers.’
Sharmeena set her alarm to wake herself up early to pray, and she destroyed old pictures of herself, saying women should not be photographed.
Her father was not worried about this change in her behaviour, and even took his daughter to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage – an Islamic ritual devout Muslims are expected to perform at least once.
She stopped listening to Western music and spent more and more time watching the news.
It is now apparent that she was preparing to travel to Syria to join IS, although her contacts with jihadists are impossible to trace because she has deleted her social media accounts.
Shortly before fleeing to Turkey, she asked her father to pay for an online order from her favourite shop, Forever 21, because she needed some new clothes for the ‘cold weather’.
The package arrived two days after she had run away.
Her father thinks she was groomed to go to Syria by two young women, who are believed to have taken her to the airport and ensured she got on the flight to Turkey. Mr Uddin could not believe that his daughter had left Britain because she was not even allowed to travel the one mile down the road from her home to Whitechapel by herself.
He said: ‘When the police came, I was ringing my daughter continuously, but it kept going to voicemail in a different language.
‘I asked the officers what the language was – two or three hours later they told me she was in Turkey.
‘I didn’t know why she had gone to Turkey. I thought she’s got no relatives or friends there – there was nobody in Turkey, so how come she went there? I asked the police “How can she fly without any parent or guardian?” They told me the airline’s rules say a 14-year-old can fly by herself.’
Mr Uddin does not blame the police for his daughter running away but he believes more could have been done when she was in Turkey and making her way to the Syrian border. He said: ‘She didn’t make it to the Islamic State the same day, she was in Turkey for a few days.
‘I saw from my phone records that she was still making calls in Turkey to a Turkish mobile. So I was a bit upset because I gave police all this information.
‘She was calling two or three people over four or five days. Maybe they could have found her in Turkey but they didn’t.’