When Shamima Begum was first pictured in a Syrian refugee camp, she looked deadpan into the camera, her face framed by her hijab, and said she did not regret joining Isil. In response, Sajid Javid, the then home secretary, revoked her UK citizenship. This week, she has been photographed again, still in the camp, this time smiling, wearing sunglasses with a T-shirt and unzipped hoodie.
In the intervening years, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl – who left for Syria in 2015, aged 15, with two friends – has lost a baby to pneumonia and unsuccessfully challenged the removal of her citizenship. To some, the new pictures are a sign that her world view has changed, and that she has left the Islamic State behind. Others say it is part of a ploy to win sympathy following her defeat in the Supreme Court.
Hadiya Masieh, 43, a former Islamist turned intervention provider for Prevent, the Home Office’s counter-extremism programme, is trying to make sense of the pictures.
“There is no way in hell Shamima would have been able to wear those clothes under Isil,” says Masieh, chief executive of Groundswell Project, an umbrella organisation for countering extremism. “It goes against everything Islamic State stands for. Under their regime, they would lash you if you had a tiny bit of hair showing.”
Masieh is well placed to parse what could be happening with Begum, having spoken to around 100 supporters of and returnees from Islamic State.
“Working with returnees, I know Islamic State members in those camps can be pretty barbaric,” she says. “People have been found dead, murdered. Shamima could be putting her life at risk if she says something against them.” Casting off the burka in favour of the kind of streetwear worn by young women in Britain might also be seen by Isil agents as a provocative act.
A manager of the Roj camp, where Begum is one of around 50 British people, told The Telegraph that there is a trend among those who have rejected Islamic State to change the way they dress. “Freely going around in Western clothes makes it seem there isn’t a threat [from them],” says Masieh.
But then she changes tack. “Isil are so devious in their ways. They told people to wear Western clothes when crossing the border. Nothing can really be known about these people and how they operate.”
The only surefire way to determine Begum’s intentions in her apparent change of heart is to formally assess her, Masieh concludes. “We won’t know anything until she is brought here and processed,” she says.
If Begum was ever allowed into the UK, she would join around 400 returnee jihadists, around 40 of whom have so far been prosecuted. Others are going through rehabilitation schemes, such as the Desistance and Disengagement Programme (DDP), part of Prevent, which is mandated for convicted and suspected terrorists and which worked with 116 people between 2016 and 2018.
“She would need to prove herself, prove that she’s safe,” says Masieh, “with assessments from psychologists – people like myself. We would look at how she speaks out against what she did. What is her speech like? Is she 100 per cent against Islamic State, and does she want to stop others from joining it, to destroy it? It’s obvious when that passion’s not genuine.”
Masieh is a self-described “small Indian lady”, with her long hair swept to one side. “You can be religious and not wear a headscarf,” she says, unprompted.
From a secular Yorkshire family, Masieh was herself radicalised at Brunel University, when members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, or ‘Party of Liberation’, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate under sharia law, exploited her interest in the Islamic world.
“Even though it was extreme and radical, we didn’t cross the border of violence,” says Masieh. But after the 7/7 bombings, in which al-Qaeda killed 52 people, Masieh turned her back on her extreme Islamist beliefs.
Around the same time, the Government dramatically expanded Prevent as part of a terrorism crackdown. One of the largest pre-criminal programmes, supporters say it puts the UK “miles ahead” of other countries in tackling jihadism as well as white supremacism. The Home Office claims Prevent has diverted more than 1,200 people from extremism.
But it has been criticised for racial profiling and stoking divisions. A handful of high-profile failures have also drawn scrutiny, including the mismanagement of the case of Ahmed Hassan, who became the Parsons Green Tube bomber.
Masieh says she has had a 98 per cent success rate, with families and communities expressing “utter gratitude that I helped their child get out of an awful brainwashing – and that they’re not dead. Prevent has saved lives.”
Although Begum is yet to express remorse publicly, Masieh believes she can be deradicalised. For one, Begum hasn’t sugar-coated her experiences. “We know where we stand with her,” says Masieh. “We can work with that.”
Most of the women Masieh has dealt with are “highly intelligent, sensitive people at heart,” she says. The process can take anything from a few months to a couple of years; Begum may be “in the system” for longer.
“To be realistic, there’s no rulebook,” says Masieh. “But it can be done.”
For more information on Groundswell Project, go to groundswellproject.org