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‘I feel scared,’ British teen said after defection to Islamic State. Now, reports say she’s dead

The voice on the end of the line sounds nervous and alone. “I don’t have a good feeling,” Kadiza Sultana can be heard telling her sister. “I feel scared.”

The 17-year-old was one of three schoolgirls who left east London to join the Islamic State in Syria in 2015 after being radicalized online. New details have now emerged of the teenager’s desperate wish to return home and her family’s attempts to help her plot an escape.

But it was a dream that was never realized. This week, news emerged that Kadiza is believed to have been killed in a Russian airstrike in May.

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“There’s nothing worse than finding out that your sibling or your family member has been killed,” the family’s lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, said. “By all accounts, she was a young girl with a very, very promising future. It’s a great loss to us all, really. Every effort was made from the very beginning to try and avoid this fateful news.”

Where’s Mom? I want to speak to Mom.

— British teenager Kadiza Sultana

Kadiza, a British national of Bangladeshi heritage, was just 16 when she left her home with two 15-year-old school friends, telling her parents she would be back soon. They were all A students at Bethnal Green Academy, and their disappearance caused widespread shock.

They first flew to Turkey and then were captured on a surveillance camera catching a bus to the Syrian border.

From there, details about their lives became scarce.

They were all reportedly swiftly married to Islamic State fighters. Kadiza’s husband, an American national of Somali origin, is believed to have been killed late last year. The girls made sporadic contact with their relatives in London, and at first said they were enjoying their new lives, though it appears they soon became disillusioned.

The phone conversation between Kadiza and her sister, Halima Khanom, was filmed by British broadcaster ITV News. In it, the siblings can be heard discussing ways to smuggle Kadiza out of Islamic State-controlled territory in a taxi.

When Khanom asks her sister how confident she feels about her chances of escape, she replies: “Zero.”

“You feel scared,” Khanom says. “Why do you feel scared?”

“You know if something goes wrong, like, that’s it,” Kadiza replies. “You know the borders are closed right now, so how am I going to get out?”

At one point, there is also a poignant reminder that Kadiza is still a teenager. “Where’s Mom?” she asks. “I want to speak to Mom.”

Anyone who wishes to leave Islamic State territory faces a life-threatening choice.

Last year, there were reports that Samra Kesinovic, an Austrian teenager who traveled to Syria, was beaten to death after being caught trying to flee.

The fate of the other two girls with whom Kadiza traveled to Syria, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum, is unknown, but their loved ones have all made heartfelt appeals for information on their whereabouts. They are among more than 800 British citizens who are thought to have joined extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Combating online grooming by extremist groups has become a huge challenge for the British government, which has implemented the “Prevent” strategy aimed at stopping radicalization.

As part of the program, schools are now legally bound to report students who they think could be vulnerable to extremism or radicalization.

But its efficacy has been questioned, as many believe it unfairly discriminates against the Muslim community and creates a climate of distrust.

Labor lawmaker Rushanara Ali, who represents the district where the three girls lived, said she had “deep concerns” about the strategy and called for a “proper assessment” of it in the wake of Kadiza’s death.

“I know that certainly I felt, and I know others did, that it could have been anybody’s child, and that’s what’s so shocking about it,” she said. “They came from loving families. They were highly articulate, highly intelligent, promising young women. … There has been much soul-searching, and that needs to continue and we need to learn the lessons so that we can protect other young people from being targeted in this way.”

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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