London schoolgirl (17) planned to escape Isis in Syria
Kadiza Sultana’s family told daughter killed – most likely in Russian air raid on Raqqa
From left: 15-year-old Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana (16) and Shamima Begum (15) at Gatwick airport in February 2015. Photograph: PA
A 17-year-old British girl who ran away to join Islamic State in February last year later feared being captured and killed by the terrorist group in an escape attempt that was ultimately never put into place, according to a family solicitor.
Kadiza Sultana’s family recently received word from Syria that she had been killed in May, most likely during a Russian air raid on Raqqa, the so-called capital of Islamic State, also known as Isis.
Criminal defence solicitor Tasnime Akunjee has been central to the 18-month effort to recover Sultana, Amira Abase (16) and Shamima Begum (16), from Bethnal Green in east London.
Akunjee had worked on terrorism-related issues previously, and had travelled to the Turkish-Syrian border in June 2015 to secure the release of a British woman held for seven months by al-Qaeda affiliates, but never before had he dealt with Isis.
“We didn’t know where they [the girls] were. At first we thought they were in Turkey and that we had a chance [of returning them],” he said. “But once they crossed into Syria things became more complicated,” he said.
“Still, at that time we thought ‘where there is a will there is a way.’ We knew people had returned from Syria before.”
When Kadiza left London, her family – first-generation emigrants who left Bangladesh when Kadiza was a child – contacted the authorities. “The East London mosque asked me to help, and I threw my lot in,” said Akunjee.
The Sultanas and the families of the two other missing girls undertook a highly-publicised trip to Istanbul in March 2015, where they met several people who had spoken to the girls at the city bus terminal before they crossed into Syria.
“We managed to engage with the Turkish authorities,” said Akunjee. “Ultimately we wanted the girls to contact their families, so that was a success at that time.” It was only after this trip and an accompanying Twitter campaign, the solicitor said, that the girls reached out.
Held in flat
In Raqqa, reports suggested the girls lived with a woman charged with indoctrinating them with Isis propaganda and for several months they were prohibited from leaving their apartment. On the few occasions they were allowed go into the streets, they were reportedly seen carrying shopping bags and a machine gun.
Even during air strikes and electricity shortages, however, the girls were able to contact their families in London at least every two weeks. Sultana is believed to have married an American Isis fighter of Somali origin who died last year.
As time passed, Sultana’s perspective appeared to change. She told her sister last December how she wanted to leave but was afraid to act as the border with Turkey had been shut. Sultana added that she would “never” go through the territory of the PKK, the Kurdish militant group, to get out. “If something happens,” she told her sister Halima Khanom in December, “that’s it.”
A plan was hatched. Contacts inside Syria in touch with her family sought to rescue Sultana by putting her in the back of a taxi at a specified corner of a park in Raqqa, and driving her out of the city. “The only thing I would say to you,” Khanom told her, “is trust us.”
“She wanted to know about the specific details of the extraction plan because she wanted to trust in it, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t tell her all of these details,” Akunjee said. “You deal with a lot of characters and you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, what they are like. [But] it was a robust plan.”
But fear of retribution from the jihadists overwhelmed the teenager.
Beaten to death
“The week she was thinking of leaving, an Austrian girl was caught trying to escape and was beaten to death publicly. That made Kadiza too fearful to leave,” said Akunjee, who last spoke to her seven months ago.
“They had extreme pressure placed upon them – stay and be killed or leave and likely be killed.”
Details surrounding the present status of the remaining two girls who left London with Sultana cannot be divulged, said Akunjee, given the dangers they still face. For the same reason Akunjee would not comment on who was involved in the plan to spring Sultana from Raqqa.
The case has a tragic backstory. When police wrote to the girls’ families in February 2015, encouraging them to be watchful after another school friend absconded to Syria, the letters were delivered to the girls themselves, who then hid them from their families. They were later discovered buried in textbooks after the trio had left for Syria.
The Metropolitan commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howes, later apologised to the families.
Akunjee says that, in his view, the British authorities did little to assist in recovering Sultana and her friends. “But [they] didn’t stand in our way. In my experience that’s the best you can hope for.”