A teenage jihadi bride who groomed three of her school friends to join her in Syria to fight for Islamic State [Daesh] was radicalised at a women’s charity based at one of Britain’s biggest mosques, it has been claimed.
Sharmeena Begum became one of the youngest British teenagers to join the murderous IS terror group when she fled from her home in East London and travelled to Syria last December aged 15.
Three months later, three of her closest school friends – Amira Abase, 16, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Shamima Begum, 15 – also fled to Syria, triggering an international search to rescue them.
Islamic leaders and some of their family members blamed the internet for grooming the four schoolgirls, who were all pupils at Bethnal Green Academy in Tower Hamlets, East London.
But now it is claimed that Sharmeena was first radicalised inside the East London Mosque, Whitechapel, allegedly by women from a group called Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). She then allegedly groomed three friends to join her at the meetings.
The IFE previously attracted controversy because one of its founders is a suspected Muslim extremist accused of 18 murders and war crimes in his native Bangladesh.
Family members and relatives of the teenager broke their silence and told The Mail on Sunday that they suspect rogue individuals within the IFE’s women’s wing, known as the Sisters Forum or Muslimaat, advised her to travel to Syria in the wake of her mother’s death. The IFE has denied the claims.
But in a series of interviews, the MoS has been told:
1. Sharmeena was groomed at the Sisters Forum when she was extremely vulnerable as she was coping with her mother’s death from cancer. Members of the group allegedly told her she would join her mother in heaven if she died fighting for IS in Syria.
2.She encouraged her three friends to attend meetings at the East London Mosque, which has always denied links to Islamic extremism.
3. Sharmeena borrowed £500 from her grandmother, saying she needed it for shopping but instead used the cash to buy a plane ticket to Turkey and from there travelled to Syria.
4. She also duped her grandmother into handing over her passport, saying it was needed for a school project.
5. Two months ago, Sharmeena, now 16, phoned her family to reveal she had married a Syrian IS fighter.
6. Sharmeena’s father, Mohammed Nizam Uddin, 38, has revealed that he saw a sudden change in her when his wife, Shahnaz Begum, died of lung cancer in January last year at the age of 33.
Until then, Sharmeena had been a clever schoolgirl who enjoyed the music of Rihanna, loved watching EastEnders and studied hard as she had dreams of becoming a doctor.
But Mr Uddin, a waiter in an Indian restaurant, said: ‘I told the police that Sharmeena definitely changed after her mother died.
Sharmeena began attending the East London Mosque regularly and started wearing Isamic clothes such as the hijab. Mr Uddin thought his daughter’s new interest in Islam was her way of coping with her mother’s death and so did not show any concern.
He said: ‘She used to tell me to take her to the East London Mosque as she wanted to go and pray there. Sometimes she used to call me to pick her up from there.’
Mr Uddin was careful not to blame the mosque or groups within it for his daughter’s radicalisation, but his brother-in-law said the rest of the family blamed the IFE’s women’s group for poisoning the young girl’s mind.
Baki Miah, 35, a step-uncle to Sharmeena, said: ‘They told her things like, if she goes and dies in Syria, she would go to paradise, where she would meet her mother.
‘I am 500 per cent sure that she was groomed at the East London Mosque. She was spending most of her time in the mosque, after school and all the time, she was spending in the mosque.’
After Sharmeena arrived in Syria in December, she contacted her grandmother and her father to tell them that she was there.
Family friend Shahidur Rahman, 47, a restaurateur from Wembley, North London, said: ‘When Sharmeena went to Syria, she called her dad up, and one time she said, “If I die here, then I will go to my mother.”’
In February, Amira, Kadiza and Shamima caught a flight from Gatwick to Istanbul after telling their families they were going to revision classes at their school. Despite a tearful appeal by their families on national television, and an international manhunt launched to rescue them before they crossed into Syria, the three girls were smuggled into IS territory.
A separate investigation by internet news channel Vice News, broadcast today on its website, claims that by the summer holidays last year, Sharmeena was determined to travel to Syria, and that she in turn radicalised her three best friends at school, under the noses of parents and teachers.
The girls were in the same year at Bethnal Green Academy – a mixed-sex, multicultural secondary school rated ‘excellent’ by Ofsted – and had been close friends for years.
Although the Vice documentary, which is called Groomed By The Islamic State, does not implicate the mosque, Mr Miah said that Amira, Kadiza and Shamima also used to attend the Sisters Forum events with Sharmeena.
But now all the girls are believed to be in Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS in Syria, having been married off to fanatical fighters.
Last month, the MoS revealed how Amira had married the notorious Australian fighter Abdullah Elmir, 18, who is called ‘Ginger Jihadi’ because of his long red hair.
We also revealed how Amira callously mocked the 38 victims of the the Tunisian massacre by texting LOL [laugh out loud] to an undercover reporter when she was informed of the incident.
Sharmeena’s father said his daughter called her grandmother in East London two months ago and revealed that she was married.
But the girls’ distraught families insist they had no hint that their daughters were being radicalised in any way, despite some suspicious behaviour in the months leading up to their disappearance. Amira’s mother Fetia and her husband Abase Hussen, 47, told Vice News that her daughter was bombarded with calls and messages on her phone in the run-up to her leaving for Syria.
In broken English, she added: ‘She asked me, “I don’t want to contact anyone, I want to change my number.” She said, “Just leave it mummy, I just want to change my sim card or my mobile.”
Despite sharing a bedroom with her daughter, she thought the teenager was staying up late spending time on her laptop to revise for her GCSE exams, rather than anything sinister.
Fetia added: ‘We share same bedroom. You know she sleeping two o’clock, 3 o’clock. I’m with her on the computer. I’m with her always. How can she plan this, she can’t, she revise all the time all the night, I don’t know.’ Now Fetia realises the horrible significance of this, adding: ‘Someone was pushing her.’
The families of Amira, Shamima and Khadiza issued a statement last night saying: ‘Our daughters may have attended the East London Mosque to pray, but to our knowledge have never been associated or a part of the Islamic Forum of Europe.
'The Mosque and even the IFE have a strong track record of speaking out against and condemning extremism, this is well known within our community.’
Scotland Yard declined to comment, saying that investigations into the girls’ journey to Syria were continuing. Two women, aged 20 and 21, from North London, were arrested in February after apparently encouraging Sharmeena to travel to Syria.
Their identities have not been released and it is not known if they are connected to the East London Mosque or the Sisters Forum. They have been bailed to a date later this month.
Last night the mosque strongly denied playing a role in the radicalisation of Sharmeena and her three friends. In a statement, the mosque’s lawyers said it was attended by thousands of worshippers each week ‘so it is possible, indeed probable, that one or more of the girls attended at some point’.
But they added: ‘The ELM in all its statements, both written and verbal, has been unequivocal in condemning ISIS and in warning people not to travel to Syria.’
The IFE refused to comment. However, sources close to the group denied the four schoolgirls were known to the organisation. They added that the group organises many public meetings and events that are open to the public.
One of the IFE’s founding leaders was Chowdhury Mueen Uddin, 64, who is accused of at least 18 murders as well as war crimes in his native Bangladesh during its bloody war of independence in 1971.
By Omar Wahid
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.