Life

The Beauty Queen Who Became an ISIS Bride

An extract from Simon Cottee's new book, ‘Black Flags of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hotspot’.
March 25, 2021, 11:05am
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Gailon Su. Left: Facebook. Right: Channel 4, via

The below is an extract from ‘Black Flags of the Caribbean: How Trinidad Became an ISIS Hotspot’ (Bloomsbury) by Simon Cottee, available to buy today.

On the 9th of January, 2019, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, issued a statement reporting that they had captured eight foreign fighters in the town of Hajin in eastern Syria – where the last remnants of ISIS were holed up – including a 16-year-old American named Soulay Noah Su (AKA Abu Souleiman al-Amriki). The YPG also released a poster with mugshots of all eight captives. 

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Soulay Noah Su stands out like the proverbial sore thumb, and not just because he is the only Black face among the motley crew of jihadists. The Uzbeki to Su’s right looks like he’s been holed up not in a besieged town, but in an actual hole. His beard is grey, long and disheveled, and his eyes look sunken and depleted. The other men, all much older than Su, look like they’ve just returned from a month-long bender. Su, by contrast, looks preternaturally youthful, with big brown soulful eyes and full lips. 

When I first saw the mugshots, they had been online for just over an hour, and within minutes of clocking Su’s face and kunya – his nom de guerre, of “al-Amriki” – I had doubts about the YPG’s claim that he was an American. Just days earlier, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), under whose auspices the YPG functions, had made the same claim about Zaid Abdul Hamid, the portly Trinidadian who had appeared in an official ISIS video claiming he couldn’t practice his “deen [religion] 100 percent” back in Trinidad.

The SDF captured Hamid fighting alongside the American Warren Christopher Clark, who was later to relay in an interview on NBC News that that he was curious to see “what the group [ISIS] was about”, which was an odd thing to say, given that ISIS had been all over social media since at least 2014, telling the world, in hate-filled rhetoric, exactly what it was about. 

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Su-lay

It didn’t take long to establish what I had suspected: that Su-lay – the correct spelling of his name – was also a Trinidadian. He was taken to Syria on the 3rd of September, 2014, by his mother Gailon Su, in a party of nine, headed by his step-father Anthony Hamlet, who had appeared in the same official ISIS video as Hamid. Su-lay was just 12 years of age when he arrived in Syria.  

I shared this information with Rukmini Callimachi, who works the terrorism beat at the New York Times. “Omg,” she instantly fired back in an email, “if they [the SDF] misidentify another American I’m going to lose it.” A few days later, Callimachi, with Eric Schmitt, published a story revealing Su-lay’s nationality and identity. “The 16-year-old, who was erroneously identified in a news release from the American-backed militia as Soulay Noah Su, an American citizen, is actually Su-lay Su from Trinidad,” Callimachi and Schmitt wrote, having received further confirmation from Su’s sister, Sarah Lee Su. 

It subsequently transpired that Su-lay had been captured alongside Gailon Su. According to the Dutch journalist Ana van Es, who had briefly spoken to Gailon after she had been put into custody and separated from Su-lay, they had surrendered to the SDF together. Gailon told van Es that Hamlet had “tricked” her into going to Syria. She also said that within months of arriving in Syria she had divorced him, marrying another ISIS fighter soon after. And just like the first marriage, the second one didn’t last.

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“There is something wrong with them [ISIS fighters]. Troublesome men,” she told van Es. Gailon later relayed to The New York Times that she had married four men in Syria. “I was like a whore in the Dawla [the Islamic State],” she said

Judging by her Facebook page, Gailon was not your average “jihadi bride”. For a start, she’s a bit too old: 46. She had also come to Islam late in life, converting into the faith in 2014, when she was 42. And she was a former beauty queen (in one photo she posted in 2013, she is wearing a ribbon with “Miss Longdenville” printed on it). Nor was she your average ISIS homemaker: “She’s intriguing,” van Es told me. “I mean, her whole story is intriguing. It’s not every day that you get a divorce inside the caliphate. I know that it was allowed, but it’s unusual to do it twice.”  

To better understand Gailon I spoke with her 23-year-old daughter Sarah Lee Su, who lives in Trinidad and is not a Muslim. She was reluctant to speak about her relationship with Gailon, whom she last lived with when she was 16, but it was clear from what she said – or rather didn’t say – that the relationship wasn’t exactly a cloudless one. She said even less about her and Su-lay’s biological father, a Chinese national, who she hasn’t seen in 14 years. 

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“She didn’t ask to go [to] Syria,” Sarah said of her mother, clarifying that “the guy [Hamlet] she married told her that they were going to Mecca. I just want them to come back home, because, at the end of the day, my mum and my little brother is innocent.” 

I asked Sarah if her mother was a true believer in the ISIS ideology. Apparently she was not, and she had never been radicalised. Yet there she was in eastern Syria, hanging on to the bitter end among the last pockets of ISIS resistance. And Hamlet was no mere cook or farmhand conscripted into ISIS: he was a foreign fighter who had appeared in the group’s official propaganda, and was a core member of the ISIS hub in Rio Claro, south-eastern Trinidad. I didn’t want to press the issue with Sarah, but I found it difficult to imagine that Hamlet’s beliefs and religious activism would have been hidden from Gailon, or that he would have married her had they not agreed on some fundamental jihadist precepts.  

In an audio message Gailon [who, along with Su-lay, is still in detention in Syria] had sent via Facebook Messenger a month before she was captured, she told Sarah, “Everyone wants to be blaming me, that I did bad things to my children. I just married a man.” Which excuses all, but explains nothing. 

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Left: Su-Lay in Trinidad. Right: Su-Lay in Syria. Photos: Facebook

The question of Su-lay’s moral culpability is far easier to answer: he doesn’t have any. He was 12 years of age when he was taken to Syria with his new family. So he didn’t have any say in the matter. And as soon as he entered ISIS territory he would have been indoctrinated into the group’s ideology and theology of slaughter and self-sacrifice. He would have been subjected to gruelling physical training in a military camp in preparation for fighting or “martyrdom operations” on the frontline. And, as an ultimate test of loyalty, he may have had to execute a captive of ISIS.

“He is 16 years old,” van Es said, referring to Su-lay, “and most of the [captured ISIS] school-boys I spoke to [in eastern Syria] had to join ISIS at around eight, nine, ten, so it’s likely that Su-lay was fighting for them [ISIS].” This, no doubt, makes Su-lay a potential “security risk”, and explains why western governments are so hesitant to take back nationals who joined ISIS. But it also makes him a victim as much as a perpetrator in the Syrian jihad. ISIS not only brutalised Su-lay; they also stole his childhood, irrevocably. 

On the 4th of July, 2013, Gailon posted on Facebook a photo of Su-lay wearing a white untucked shirt with his arms crossed, leaning slightly back with his head to one side. He looks confident, a very cool customer indeed. The caption above the picture reads: “Yes!!! He did it again. Congrats to my son Su-lay for coming 1st in his end of term test and to all the proud mothers out there.”

It is hard and sobering to reconcile this photo of Su-lay with the mugshot of his older, but still all-too young, self taken by the YPG on the day of his capture.