Scottish Daily Mail
QUEEN OF THE JIHADI BRIDES
The Scots student... and the chilling meeting that cements her position at the heart of the ISIS web of evil
‘Love it when I get woke from a plane flying too low’
IN the Syrian city of Raqqa, deep inside the heart of Islamic State, two young women come face to face. International fame means that, even with their faces partially covered by the traditional veil, they will probably have recognised each other.
Aqsa Mahmood, the 20-year- old Scottish medical student who ran away from her affluent home in Glasgow in November 2013, is now IS’s top female recruiter.
Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, whose husband Amedy Coulibaly killed five people in Paris a day after the Charlie Hebdo murders, is one of the world’s most wanted women.
The pair met at some point in the past two months. Boumeddiene fled to Syria five days before the Paris attacks and has been welcomed into the arms of IS. Mahmood, who has been in Syria for more than a year and has married an IS fighter, has been ‘chaperoning’ the older woman, introducing her to life inside the world’s most feared terrorist organisation.
British and American intelligence have been monitoring Mahmood for some time now. A complex eavesdropping operation that involves voice recognition and identifies individuals, partnerships, units, locations and potential targets has been quietly observing her as she forges friendships with young, vulnerable British women online and lures them into a dangerous life abroad.
Yet although security services have gathered information on Mahmood, and watch her movements both in person and on the internet, they have yet to act. She has not been taken out by a drone strike, or been the subject of a search and destroy special forces mission. For now, at least, her actions have been allowed to continue. Her blog, in which she peddles advice on the clothes and toiletries to bring when travelling to Syria, remains online – and her Twitter account was only suspended last week.
That Mahmood is under surveillance, and that she has forged an alliance with Boumeddiene, are indications of just how influential the former private school girl has become within IS and how far her power stretches.
Certainly, it is a life far from the quiet, leafy suburb in the South Side of Glasgow where she grew up. From her home, believed to be in the town of Manbij, she can regularly hear the airstrikes. In fact, bombings have become such a common part of her daily life in the IS-controlled town that she has become rather blasé about them.
‘Love it when I get woke from my sleep from a plane flying too low down’ she tweeted recently, joking that it acted as a good alarm for her dawn prayers.
Mahmood is one of IS’s most important female assets. After stints in Aleppo and Raqqa she is now believed to be installed in a house in Manbij, a town 20 miles west of the Euphrates and nicknamed ‘ Little London’ because of the high number of West- ern jihadists living there. She has married an IS fighter and spends much of her time tweeting about ‘bringing the battlefield to yourself’ and communicating with other wannabe jihadi brides – young women like 15-year-old Shamima Begum from London, who tweeted Mahmood last month asking if they could message privately.
Two days later, Begum, accompanied by schoolmates Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, left Britain for Turkey. They are now believed to have joined IS – possibly under the guiding hand of Mahmood.
Certainly, Mahmood is something of an authority when it comes to life as a woman under the ‘caliphate’. She has now been in Syria for more than 15 months and runs a regular blog in which she dispenses advice on everything from what sort of clothing to bring (‘There are clothes here, but the quality is really bad’) to the junk food she misses (Pringles and Nutella are singled out – and at one point she says she’s praying for someone new to arrive from Scotland so they can bring her Irn-Bru).
As well as her blog, she also uses Kik and Surespot, messaging apps favoured by terrorists because they are encrypted and therefore difficult to monitor. There, she actively asks young women with questions about joining IS to contact her to find out more.
Her devastated parents, Khalida and Muzaffar Mahmood, have said in a statement that they are ‘full of horror and anger that their daughter may have had a role to play in the recruitment of these young girls to IS’.
‘You are a disgrace to your family and the people of Scotland, your actions are a perverted and evil distortion of Islam,’ they have told their once bright and sunny daughter.
‘You are killing your family every day with your actions, they are begging you to stop if you ever loved them.’
Yet with the amount of influence that Mahmood now appears to have in IS, the chances of her stopping what she is doing – never mind coming home – seem remote.
Women are important to the terrorist organisation. Those running it believe they are building a new state, a new civilisation. That means women who can bring a new generation of IS fighters into the world, marrying those on the frontlines and keeping the home fires burning in key IS cities such as Raqqa and Mosul.
The reality of life in Manbij however, which has been under IS control since January l ast year, i s brutal and barbaric.
Gangs of religious police known as the Hisbah roam the streets, enforcing their own, twisted version of Sharia law. If a woman’s clothing does not completely cover her, punishments such as whippings are meted out.
When the Jordanian pilot Moaz alKasasbeh was burned alive in a cage, special screens were put up in the mosques so the footage could be broadcast.
Public executions in the town are
common. They usually take place on Sundays and have become a popular spectacle among the locals.
Last year, a man was crucified and beheaded for raping and robbing a woman; while a female was strangled in the town square by an IS fighter with his bare hands – film of which was l ater uploaded to YouTube.
Last month a man charged with homosexuality was stoned to death by a large mob – a trend that appears to have caught on in other parts of IS-controlled Syria. Only this week, another man was thrown to his death from a high building on suspicion of being gay.
Meanwhile, stoning has become such a regular method of execution that a purpose built ‘stoning pit’ has been constructed.
This is the world which Mahmood, who was educated at the £3,500 a term Craigholme School for girls in Glasgow and loved the Harry Potter books and the music of Coldplay, now inhabits.
It has clearly affected her thinking. She still keeps up with the news from home and the day after the Glasgow bin lorry crash which killed six last December, tweeted chillingly: ‘What goes around comes right back around’.
Yet while she sometimes tweets murderous, hateful statements, her online musings are often far more mundane.
‘Forget Scotland,’ she tweeted in November, ‘the winters here are too much. Sisters, please don’t forget to pack thermal clothing or you’ll regret it later on.’
One wonders what else Mahmood might regret.
There is a lot of drudgery to her days. Most IS brides are recruited in order to keep house for their new husbands, as well as to produce the next generation of IS fighters. Cleaning, washing and cooking take up much of her time – all things that are far harder when you are living in basic conditions, plagued by constant power cuts and a lack of cleaning materials. She also hints at a certain amount of boredom with her new life.
‘I didn’t even know how to cook when I got married but now I’ve had so much free time that I’ve learnt,’ she wrote last year.
‘You can have electricity most of the time or you can rarely have it – it just depends on your circumstance. Maybe even learn how to wash your clothes by hand since you really cannot depend on the washing machine here.’
Religion, of course, is central to the life of any IS bride. At her home in Glasgow, Mahmood was a moderate Muslim who went out with her friends, listened to music and read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and The Hunger Games by American author Suzanne Collins.
In Manbij, however, her reading is almost entirely confined to religious texts and the blogs of fellow jihadi brides. She prays fervently and regularly and can only leave the house when fully covered up – often going so far as to cover her face entirely and wear gloves.
Occasionally, there is time to catch up with friends, other jihadi brides whom she spent time with in Raqqa – where she lived in a house with several young women as she waited to set up home with her husband.
One is Umm Haritha, a Canadian who also lives in Manbij and joined IS after running away from home with a suitcase and $1,500. She married IS fighter Abu Ibrahim al-Suedi, a 26-year-old Palestinian from Sweden who was killed in fighting last May.
The two occasionally meet up at each other’s houses to eat pizza.
It is likely that her relationship with Boumedienne – and perhaps other new female recruits to the terrorist organisation, for whom she represents an old hand – also keeps her busy at times.
Mahmood has never identified her husband publicly, but it is likely that, given the language barrier (she wrote about trying to learn Arabic so as to stand out less when she was l i ving i n Raqqa) he too is a Westerner.
There is now a question mark over whether he is still alive. The most recent post on her blog, penned just over a month ago, hints that he may have been killed fighting.
Writing about marrying an IS fighter, she says: ‘Sisters, with this comes the great acceptance and hefty reality which is that this deci- sion means we will most probably have to sooner or later hear the news of our husbands’ death.’
She goes on to dispense advice about what to wear and how to behave if you are widowed and, intriguingly, says: ‘Most importantly, know your rights as a Muslim woman. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do such and such when you are allowed; don’t live in ignorance.’
She has not posted since, although she has occasionally been active on other forums – all movement that security services will no doubt have been watching.
She is understood to have had some contact with her parents since she left for Syria; and clearly has some guilt over what she has put them through.
‘When you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back, it’s so hard,’ she has written. ‘It’s so hard to hear this and I can never do justice to how coldhearted I feel.’
Mahmood seems particularly to miss her mother. Understandable, perhaps, given that she is alone, thousands of miles away from home, barely an adult herself.
She wrote: ‘ No one can truly describe the pain of losing a mother, even I who lost her own, I still cannot describe and put into words the pain I go through every day of my life.’
Yet she has made it clear that she will never come home. In one post, she snorted in derision at the idea she might not be able to return to the UK: ‘The only time we will ever, ever return to the UK is to raise our flag.’
It is the sort of naivety which suggests that, while she may now be brainwashing other young minds, she has also been brainwashed herself.
‘Forget Scotland, the winters here are too much’