Bethnal Green schoolgirl who ran away to join Isis in Syria believed dead

Feared dead: Kadiza Sultana
Feared dead: Kadiza Sultana was one of three girls from Bethnal Green Academy who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State group. Photograph: Metropolitan Police

Kadiza Sultana, the schoolgirl believed to have been killed in an airstrike in Islamic State’s stronghold after giving up her promising life in Tower Hamlets to become a jihadi bride in Raqqa “could have been anybody’s child”, local MP Rushanara Ali has said.

The Bethnal Green MP today said there needs to be greater “soul-searching” in the local Muslim community and more generally to determine how best to stop others falling victim to extremist narratives.

Ali told the BBC’s Today programme: “There are big challenges across the country in making sure our young people are taught about Islam in a British context, in a Western context, and taught how to negotiate their faith with living in a Western secular democracy.

“Sometimes extremist ideologies can take root, [propagated] by particular people who try and exploit young people’s vulnerabilities, and that certainly seems to have been the case here, particularly with the use of online grooming.”

Sultana was 16 when she was among a trio of Bethnal Green Academy schoolgirls who quit Britain to join Islamic State in Syria last year.

Once the girls had reached Raqqa they were reportedly imprisoned in an IS compound, where their loyalty to the movement was tested.

But her family have revealed how Sultana confided in them in phone calls that she had become disillusioned with life with the terrorists after finding the reality of the so-called caliphate did not match Islamic State’s images of it.

She had apparently been planning to flee the warzone but was terrified out of the idea after an Austrian girl, Samra Kesinovic, 17, was publicly beaten to death for trying to escape.

In a heartbreaking clip of a phone call between Sultana and her family, broadcast on ITV last night, the youngster sounded choked-up and tearful.

When asked by her sister how confident she felt about being able to flee IS successfully, she replied, her voice wavering: “Zero.”

In the call, Sultana can be heard saying: “I don’t have a good feeling. Like, I feel scared.”

She later tells her sister: “You know, if something goes wrong, like, that’s it.

“The borders are closed right now, so how am I going to get out? I’m not going to go through PKK territory to get out. I’m never going to do that, ever.”

Before her death, Sultana is understood to have married a jihadi fighter who was later killed.

Her two friends Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, who she fled Britain with, are also believed to have married foreign fighters in Syria.

Rushanara Ali told the BBC the cases were “so shocking, because I know that certainly I felt…it could have been anybody’s child”.

The Labour MP said the three girls had come from “loving families, they were highly articulate, highly educated, promising young women.”

She added: “I met some of the people who taught them. They had very high hopes for them. And along the way something went badly wrong, and there has been much soul-searching, and that needs to continue.

“We need to learn the lessons so we can protect other young people from being targeted in that way and driven to extremism.”

Sara Khan, director of counter-extremism group Inspire, said: “I do see her [Sultana] as a victim because she’s not an adult.

“I’ve come across numerous young girls, girls as young as 13, who have been radicalised online or within communities. What you find…is that many of these young girls hold a very extreme understanding of religion, or, worse still, they have a void of genuinely good understanding of Islam.

“They lack critical thinking skills, and that, actually, is what makes them vulnerable to Islamist extremist propaganda in particular – so in one sense she is a victim.”

She added: “Girls like that find that they are not receiving counter-messages, they are not hearing about an Islam, for example, that promotes pluralism, human rights, democracy. That’s very much why I’d advocate the idea of a British Islam which challenges and rebuts Islamism ideology.”

Khan also warned that IS propaganda encouraging young Muslims to commit atrocities within the UK was now reaching hundreds of thousands of people and “should not be underestimated”.

“There are hundreds of thousands of extremist websites masquerading themselves as normative Islam,” she said, “and if you as a young Muslim have a very poor or deficient or superficial understanding of Islam, it doesn’t matter if you have A grades”

Youngsters who “lack critical skills…think what [they] are reading online is normative Islam,” she said.

Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer for Sultana’s family, said her family were devastated and hoped their daughter’s death would serve to dissuade others from travelling to war zones.

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