LONDON — A British schoolgirl who gave up her comfortable life in London and volunteered to join the fight against ISIS in Syria has been convicted of terrorism offenses.
Silhan Ozcelik, who was 17 when she was stopped by police at an airport outside London, left a video message for her Kurdish family explaining that she was going to train as a fighter so that she could take on the brutal ISIS forces on the frontline.
“My fight, my struggle is not just for the Kurdish people, it is for all people, for all women,” she said, in the 25-minute home video, which was recorded in her bedroom in North London.
Elite units of Kurdish women fighters have been taking the battle to ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria, successfully helping to carve out a pocket of relative security in the world’s most troubled region.
The Kurds have become America and Britain’s most trusted ally on the ground in the battle against ISIS. One of the most fearsome and effective branches of Kurdish resistance is the left-wing guerilla force known as the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party. Unfortunately, the PKK is also listed as a terrorist organization in London and Washington after decades of fighting to establish an independent Kurdistan. That hasn’t stopped the U.S. working informally alongside PKK fighters against ISIS and in more established cooperation with the PKK’s sister organization the YPG.
For a civilian in Britain, however, pledging to join the PKK would be considered a crime under the same terrorism laws that have seen dozens of jihadis apprehended as they traveled to the so-called Islamic State. At least 150 people have been arrested in Britain in connection with joining ISIS, with more than 25 convicted of terrorism offenses.
On Friday, Ozcelik, who is now 18, became the first Briton to be convicted for “engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorist acts” for planning to fight against ISIS. She was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Before the trial, London’s shocked Kurdish community and outraged protest groups organized numerous demonstrations, petitions and letter writing campaigns calling for the release of a teenager who had been determined to make a difference in the world.
The schoolgirl had closely followed events in the border town of Kobani where the Kurdish fighters fought valiantly to hold off ISIS forces.
"The only people defending them over there was the YPG, the PKK. It was amazing, the fact that they were there and they were trying to protect innocent people - I just admired it," Ozcelik said during the trial.
Ozcelik was filmed at the head of a march through London demanding the British government support the YPG and fight back against ISIS. “We’re walking through these streets because our people are dying and the U.K. is doing nothing about it. Torture, women dying in our country… ISIS is a danger to everyone,” she shouted. EMBED:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyS9YBR0Z-4
She had first been seduced by the notion of Kurdish freedom fighters (or terrorists, according to Turkey and the West) at the age of 13. She watched the movie Beritan which tells the story of a female fighter who threw herself off a cliff rather than allow herself to be captured. "[It was] melodramatic and in some ways romantic," Ozcelik told the court.
As a school project, she later made a collage of PKK leaders, Kurdish and Turkish socialists and Che Guevara.
Rather than plead guilty to the charges, Ozcelik claimed she had never really intended to go and fight with the PKK. She told the court that she had fallen in love with a man in Belgium and could not bear to share the truth with her family.
“In the Kurdish community, if you say I'm joining the PKK, everyone will look up to you, they’ll respect you. If you say you're going off with a boy, the situation changes,” she said.
Certainly, she did not make it as far as Syria, or even Turkey. Ozcelik was arrested at Stansted airport, north of London, after running away from her family and visiting Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands before returning to Britain.
Her lawyer, Peter Rowlands said she had committed no crime. “There is not a shred of evidence, not a shred, that having left home she joined the PKK, tried to join the PKK, met any members of the PKK, went to Turkey or Syria, or lifted a finger in support of their actions at all,” he said.
He claimed that she had fallen in love with a man. Before leaving home in October 2014, she had begun to wear makeup, bought more fashionable clothes and took more interest in feminine hygene than weapons training, he said.. “Is this really the first recorded case of a militant wanting a Brazilian before going into action?” Rowlands asked.
The jury took less than a day to disregard this defense, before the judge dismissed it out of hand.
"You are a stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman. You have lied to your family and this jury," said Judge John Bevan. He sentenced her to almost two years in prison but that will include the eight months she has already spent in jail awaiting trial.
Asked if she wished she had followed a different path, Ozcelik said: “Yeah I regret everything—it’s caused trouble for my family and everyone else.”
After the verdict, Richard Walton, the head of Scotland Yard’s counter terrorism command, appealed to parents and families to contact the police if they feared their children were becoming radicalized. “We continue to remain concerned about the number of young women and girls being drawn into all forms of terrorism,” he said.