The Shamima Begum Story, review: vulnerable and insolent, the Isil runaway remains an enigma

Shamima Begum is the subject of a new BBC Two documentary - Joshua Baker/BBC
Shamima Begum is the subject of a new BBC Two documentary - Joshua Baker/BBC

Another day, another opportunity to hear Isil’s most famous recruit give her version of events. The Shamima Begum Story (BBC Two) is a documentary accompanying a 10-part BBC podcast. “For the first time, she’s given her account of what happened over the last eight years,” we were told. Yet hasn’t she also told her story to news reporters and broadcasters, not to mention a 2021 Sky documentary? And aren’t we past caring?

We learned nothing new here. The podcast has been most notable so far for Begum revealing that she took a supply of Mint Aeros with her to Syria, concerned that they wouldn’t be available, but that didn’t make the cut for this 90-minute film.

Begum, the Bethnal Green schoolgirl who ran off to join Islamic State aged 15, is now 23. She remains a mass of contradictions. A thoroughly silly girl, and yet not stupid – certainly, she is clever enough to be evasive on certain topics. She complains of feeling oppressed by her strict parents and denied the freedom of other teenagers, so why join a society in which women were little more than chattels? When Begum arrived in Syria, she was put in a house with 100 other women; their only way out was to be married off to an Isil fighter, for the purposes of breeding. “It almost felt like prostitution,” she said.

Film-maker Josh Baker put question after question to Begum, who had been instructed to direct all her answers straight into the camera. In all her years of being interviewed, Begum’s manner has remained the same: a mixture of insolence and vulnerability, with some of her statements carrying a ring of truth and others causing us to doubt her words. She now claims to feel shame and guilt, but it is impossible to gauge whether this is genuine. Baker interviewed others involved in her story. They included her husband, a Dutch Isil fighter who is patently a nasty piece of work. I would have liked to hear from Begum’s parents, but they did not appear.

Begum’s story raises the important subject of why young people, born and raised in Britain, can feel so alienated from wider society that they are radicalised in this way; why living “a good Islamic life” in Syria, as she described it, would be preferable to life in east London. But the film touched on that only briefly. Instead, it chose to continue the media’s obsession with this one individual. Even Begum rolled her eyes at the number of journalists who had queued up to interview her. “They just wanted to continue the story,” she sighed.

The Shamima Begum is available now on BBC iPlayer