Shamima Begum 'smuggled into Syria by western spy'

Three girls from London who made their way to Syria to join ISIS were helped by a spy working for Canada, new book claims

Shamima Begum claims she was the victim of online grooming before she travelled to Syria as a teenager to marry an ISIS fighter. AP
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Shamima Begum and her two friends from Bethnal Green in east London were smuggled into Syria by a spy working for Canadian intelligence and British police later conspired with Canada to cover up its role, a new book has claimed.

The teenagers were trafficked into Syria by a people smuggler who was a double agent working for both ISIS and Canadian intelligence, Scotland Yard was told.

Calls for an inquiry arose after it became known that Canada knew about the teenagers’ fate but kept silent while the Metropolitan Police ran a frantic international search for the trio.

The book claims that Canada privately admitted its involvement when it feared the information would be made known and then successfully asked the British to cover up its role.

These events reopen the debate about stripping Ms Begum of her nationality, if a western intelligence officer gave her practical help to enable her to become a terrorist bride, even organising her bus tickets.

During last year's Supreme Court judgment upholding the decision to bar her from returning to the UK, British authorities did not reveal what they knew about how Ms Begum was smuggled into Syria.

Now aged 23, Ms Begum remains in a camp in northern Syria. She is due to renew her case at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in November.

The alleged cover-up was detailed in The Secret History of the Five Eyes by Richard Kerbaj, a former security correspondent for The Sunday Times.

The book, which focuses on the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US and is available on Thursday, is based on interviews with world leaders and more than 100 intelligence officials. Five Eyes is the intelligence-sharing alliance between Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

ISIS recruit Shamima Begum wants to return to UK to face terrorism charges — video

Ms Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria in 2015 with Amira Abase, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, fellow pupils at Bethnal Green Academy.

When she was found in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019, she told The Times she had “no regrets”.

Since then, she has expressed regret and said she was groomed.

Then home secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, stripped Ms Begum of her British citizenship, saying she was a threat to national security. Her friend, Sultana, was killed in a Russian air raid and Kadiza is missing.

An unprecedented public appeal to find the three schoolgirls was launched as authorities tried to trace them before they crossed the border from Turkey into ISIS territory in Syria. The alarm was raised after it was discovered that they had flown from Gatwick to Istanbul.

At the time, Canada was worried about its own young people being urged to join ISIS.

The country recruited Mohammed Al Rashed, a human trafficker for the terrorists, as an agent when he applied for asylum at the Canadian embassy in Jordan. He was hoping for a new life outside of Syria.

Mr Al Rashed is thought to have helped dozens more people from Britain and organised travel for militants and their brides into Syria.

He took photographs of their passports on the pretext that he needed proof of identity to buy domestic transport tickets, which he then forwarded to his handler with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) at the Jordan embassy.

The Canadians were silent as the Met issued an urgent appeal asking anyone who had seen the teenagers after they went to Gatwick to come forward, Kerbaj’s book claims.

It says that Canada realised that its cover could be blown when Turkey arrested Mr Al Rashed in 2015 and found him in possession of travel documents, including bus tickets belonging to the British schoolgirls.

“The CSIS officers knew that Scotland Yard had a live investigation into the three schoolgirls and also knew that sooner or later the finger would point at them,” a Five Eyes source was quoted as saying.

Within weeks of Mr Al Rashed’s arrest, CSIS officers arranged to meet Commander Richard Walton, then the Met’s head of counter-terrorism, to admit their agent’s involvement.

The Canadians could not have stopped the girls' travel because by the time Mr Al Rashed’s handler was told, they had already crossed the border, the book claims.

However, it adds that Mr Walton felt the Canadians’ visit to him was self-serving, as they hoped that any further inquiries into the schoolgirls’ journey to Syria would not result in the CSIS being questioned or held accountable. They did not meet the commander to offer an apology for their involvement.

“If you are running agents, you are acquiescing to what they are doing. You are turning a blind eye to their actions because it is being trumped by a rich vein of intelligence,” he is quoted as saying.

The Met never publicly acknowledged the involvement of CSIS, and when lawyers for Ms Begum’s family asked for information about Mr Al Rashed, they claimed they were stonewalled.

A Met spokesman declined to respond to specific questions, saying that “we do not comment on matters relating to intelligence”.

Shamima Begum cannot return to the UK to pursue appeal, Supreme Court rules — video

Intelligence officials say it made no operational sense for the police to publicise Canada’s involvement because it would have reinforced ISIS paranoia and compromise any chances of infiltrating it through new informants, the book claims.

After arresting Mr Al Rashed, Turkey claimed he worked for the Canadians.

“CSIS remained silent about the explosive allegations, taking refuge in the one thing that protects all intelligence agencies, including those within the Five Eyes, against potential embarrassment: secrecy,” the new book claims.

“The notion of saying nothing and hoping for the scandal to go away worked in Canada’s favour with regard to keeping the lid on how an agent for CSIS had smuggled western children and young adult volunteers into Syria” while their British allies struggled to contain the flow of aspiring ISIS fighters leaving the UK, it says.

“CSIS largely succeeded in covering up the role it had played in the recruitment and running of Al Rashed, and the agency’s deputy director was deployed to Ankara to beg forgiveness for failing to inform the Turkish authorities that they had been running a counter-intelligence operation in their territory.”

Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer for the Begum family, called for an inquiry into what police and intelligence services knew about the activities of the Canadians.

“Britain has lauded its efforts to stop ISIS and the grooming of our children by spending millions of pounds on the Prevent programme and online monitoring,” he said.

“However, at the very same time, we have been co-operating with a western ally, trading sensitive intelligence with them whilst they have effectively been nabbing British children and trafficking them across the Syrian border for delivery to ISIS all in the name of intelligence-gathering.

“The calculation here is that the lives of British children, and the risk of their death, is part of the algorithm of acceptable risk our western allies have taken.”

The revelations were of “crucial importance”, he said, given that Ms Begum had argued she was trafficked into Syria and that, at the time, senior officials at the Met had said the girls should be treated as victims not terrorists.

A CSIS spokesman said the service could not publicly comment on or confirm or deny the specifics of its investigations, operational interests, methodologies and activities.

“It is our long-standing policy that we do not comment on operational intelligence or security matters,” said a British government representative.

Updated: August 31, 2022, 10:25 AM
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