The Passionate Eye

These Western women left their home countries to join ISIS. Why did they do it?

Canadian Kimberly Polman was in a ‘terrible place’ when she met an ISIS member online. American Hoda Muthana feels that she was ‘brainwashed’ on social media. And Shamima Begum, from the U.K., says she wanted to help people in Syria.

And what happened when they got to Syria?

Canadian Kimberly Polman (top left), American Hoda Muthana (bottom left) and Shamima Begum, from the U.K., explain why they joined ISIS in the documentary ‘The Return: Life After ISIS.' (Alba Sotorra/Sky Documentaries)

In a detention camp in northeastern Syria, hundreds of Western women and children are waiting to go home. These women left their countries to join the Islamic State (ISIS) — and now, after the fall of ISIS, their home countries don't want them back. 

In the documentary The Return: Life After ISIS, presented by The Passionate Eye, several women open up about what attracted them to ISIS in the first place, the traumas they faced while living under the regime, and their fears and hopes for the future.

Not needed at home

Canadian Kimberly Polman says she was in a "terrible space" when she was found online by the ISIS member who would later become her husband. "Back in Canada, my children had grown and they were moving on with their own directions, so I found myself alone with an empty nest and I wasn't ready for that," Polman says in the documentary.

"He was a very vibrant personality, not what you would ever have expected for the persona of a terrorist."

Canadian Kimberly Polman explains why she joined ISIS: The Return: Life After ISIS

1 year ago
Duration 0:48
When Kimberly Polman's children grew up, she found herself alone. She met an ISIS member online and he said, "Come where you're actually loved, where you're actually needed."

Polman married him from a distance, online. "He said, 'come where you're actually loved, where you're actually needed, because he knew...I felt like I was really not needed at the time, at all."

'Brainwashed' by social media

Hoda Muthana, 24, was born and raised in America. Her father was a diplomat for Yemen in the United Nations. 

"I grew up as an American, born and raised in America, and all I had waiting for me in the future was an arranged marriage, the exact way my parents wanted it to be, so I had no time to dream about anything," she says in The Return.

"I would find sanctuary on my phone."

Muthana created the Twitter username @UmmJihad to tweet thousands of messages to her followers. According to Muthana's family, she contacted ISIS members through social media in order to plan her escape from the U.S. 

"I learnt all of this on my own, online. When you are brainwashed, you don't realize it until you snap out of it. So I took everything too fast and too deep."

At the time, there was concern that young women were being aggressively groomed by ISIS members on social media. A news report, included in the documentary, states "[Solicitor] Nazir Afzal says the Islamic State is gaining the status of a pop idol for teenagers in Britain, with boys wanting to be like them and girls wanting to be with them."

Wanted to be part of the Muslim community

Shamima Begum was 15 when she sneaked out of the U.K. to join ISIS. 

"I'd see videos of Syrians being bombed, babies covered in blood. Those types of videos made me feel really guilty. And it just made me sick to my stomach that that was going on in the world and no one was doing anything about it. It was really hard for me to see Syrians crying 'Where are the Muslims to help us and stand by us?'," Begum says in the documentary.

Shamima Begum made worldwide headlines when, at 15, she left the U.K. with two teenage friends to join ISIS. Four years later, having lost three children to disease and malnutrition, she surrendered to the coalition forces and is now held in a detention camp in northern Syria. (Alba Sotorra/Sky Documentaries)

"I always wanted to be part of a Muslim community, because when I was young I felt like an outsider in my community, so I just wanted to be a part of something."

"Back in the U.K., there were a lot of people online, recruiting people...guilting us into coming, not really telling us the entire truth about the situation in Syria. We were getting all our information from Twitter or other social media. We couldn't distinguish between what was fake news and what was real news. We were all really young and naive." 

Begum and two teenage friends left London in February 2015 and traveled to Syria.

Marriage shortly after arrival 

When they first arrived in Syria, Muthana and Begum both lived in 'madafas,' prison houses where unmarried women were held until they found, or were allocated, husbands. "All the windows were locked, there was a guard in front of the house. There was a guard in front of the guard," Muthana says in the documentary. 

"Some people thought, 'we have to have patience with this, it's a test from God.' Now I look back at it and I'm like 'crazy'. married just because the madafa was dirty couldn't stay in it. It was just not the right environment for me at all. So I just... marriage was the only way out for me."

Begum was in the madafa for a month. "What they do first is ask for your preferences. They ask you what type of men you would want, like age, nationality, language. And then they filter that down and they offer you someone and then you're like, 'Okay, I'll have a meeting with him.' But I only ever had a meeting with my husband, and my husband only had a meeting with me, so then we just decided to get married."

"I didn't know how to cook and he was so shocked that I didn't know how to cook. I'm like, 'Well, you married a 15-year-old, it's your own fault'."

Food shortages, bombings, death

Begum had a daughter and shortly after, became pregnant again with a son. "It was just so hard taking care of a baby and being pregnant. During that time, we had to keep moving. There were so many bombings and there was a shortage of food and diapers and milk. Because I didn't have breast milk, I had to worry about every next can of milk I would need to get for my daughter."

She was pregnant for a third time when her son died. "I just had to get up and keep moving. There was no time to sit and cry."

Begum's daughter died the following month. "And I felt it was my fault for not getting them out sooner, even though I didn't know why they died. They just died from some illness I don't even know. When she died, at that moment, I just wanted to kill myself. I felt like couldn't even get up anymore, I couldn't even get up to run when there were bombings."

Polman worked in an underground intensive care unit. "The bodies just kept coming in. Some were dead on arrival, some were almost dead," she says in the documentary. "They would try to [squeegee] the blood out because it kept rising as people were bleeding out….you are wading through it, it's like a river running. You don't imagine that."

Escape and life in the camp

On Muthana's last day in Shahba, her son ate grass for dinner. "I said, 'This is my last day. I'm not staying here anymore.' I dropped everything and left...I walked out despite there being IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and not knowing the way out. I walked out with the Syrians, just to find my way out, just to save my child from this starvation and these bombings, and this horrible way I'll really regret for the rest of my life. That I wish I could just erase."

Hoda Muthana was 20 when she left the US to join ISIS in November 2014. In January 2019, she surrendered to coalition forces with her son. They have since been denied entry to the U.S.; the government claims she is not, and never has been, a U.S. citizen. They are now held in a detention camp in Northern Syria trying to appeal these claims. (Alba Sotorra/Sky Documentaries)

Polman, Muthana and Begum ended up in the same detention camp in northeastern Syria. 

Begum was pregnant with her third child when she arrived. He died shortly after birth.

A news report featured in the documentary states, "It was a premature birth, but the baby was alright, so it must've been the conditions in the camp or the problems that she has there, that caused him to get pneumonia."

"I couldn't handle it, he was my last hope," Begum says. "He was the only thing keeping me alive. I didn't know how. That day I just cried for all my children. I really sat down and cried for all of them. No one could help me, no one could do anything."

What's next for these women?

All three women wish to return to their countries of origin, but their home countries won't let them. The U.K. government has removed Shamima Begum's citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled that she will not be able to re-enter the U.K. to fight her case in person. 

"I would say to the people in the U.K.: give me a second chance," she says in the documentary. "Because I was still young when I left. I just want them to put aside everything they have heard about me in the media and just have an open mind about why I left and who I am now as a person." 

Hoda Muthana has been banned from returning to the U.S. In January, 2021 a U.S. court upheld a decision to remove her citizenship. Her attorneys are appealing to the Supreme Court.

The Canadian government has refused Kimberly Polman consular assistance. Her lawyer is filing a class action against the Canadian government on her behalf — and others like her. 

Watch The Return: Life After ISIS on The Passionate Eye. 

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