Three Syria-bound girls who left their London homes to join the Islamic State will not face terrorism charges if they return, the UK's most senior police officer has said, amid a growing row over the authorities' handling of the case.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe made the pledge as he was grilled by a parliamentary committee following revelations that police had been speaking to the teenagers after one of their friends traveled out to Syria in December — but failed to inform their families.
VICE News reported last week that police had spoken twice to Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15 at their school, Bethnal Green Academy, without their parents' knowledge. On the second occasion on February 2 — just over two weeks before they disappeared — officers gave the teenagers letters for their parents requesting permission to take written statements. But the girls did not pass the letters on — something the families say should have been predictable.
The families were also not informed that one of their children's friends had traveled to Syria, being told only that the 15-year-old was missing.
They told the committee that had this crucial information not been withheld, they might have been able to prevent their daughters from following suit.
"If we received the letter directly we would have contacted the police," Sahima Begum, Shamima's sister, told the committee.
Giving evidence to the committee, Hogan-Howe apologized for the police's handling of the case.
"We're sorry," he said. "Clearly it's a terrible situation.
"We can only half imagine what they're going through at the moment."
"They have no reason to fear if nothing else comes to light that we'll be treating them as terrorists," Mark Rowley, the Met's lead on counter-terrorism added.
Hogan-Howe questioned the motives of the girls, however, saying: "I think we need to keep an open mind. Is it for terrorism or is it because they're victims?"
VICE News had earlier asked Rushanara Ali, the member of parliament (MP) for the girls' constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, whether she believed the girls were victims.
"Of course they are. They're kids," she replied.
MP Keith Vaz, the committee chairman, said the parliamentarians had heard "damning evidence" from the families of the girls over police failures.
He described it as a "huge propaganda coup for ISIS [the Islamic State]."
Defending the police, Hogan-Howe said: "We have got to get the balance right between warning people but not worrying them."
Two people have been arrested on child abduction charges in connection with the earlier disappearance, Mark Rowley, the Met's lead on counter-terrorism added.
The Turkish ambassador was also present at the committee. Abdurrahman Bilgic, said that the delivery of information about the girls from Britain had been slow.
The girls boarded a flight on February 17 and the girls were reported missing to the police on the same day. However, Turkish embassy officials were informed at 7.55pm the next day by email, he said.
The Interpol database only published details of the case the following Sunday, the committee was told.
"I think the primary obligation is on the shoulders of the source country," Mr Bilgic said, "Because they should be stopped at the source country before exiting the country.
"You know the enormous pressure on the shoulders of Turkey. Our neighborhood is not a rose garden."
Related: Families of Islamic State-bound schoolgirls say UK police 'let them walk out.'
Sky News reported on Sunday that Shamima, Kadiza and Amira were thought to now be in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa with a British girl who had been communicating with them online, and had assisted in their journey to Syria via Turkey.
On Thursday, the families told VICE News that they feared the girls' contact with police may have influenced their decision to leave the country.
"Were they feeling victimized by police?" Fahmida Aziz, the cousin of Kadiza Sulatana, said. "Were they feeling criminalized? Did they feel they had done something wrong?"
"My query would be, by giving this letter, how did that make the girls feel?" she added.
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