As night fell over East London on February 17, Renu Begum sat wondering why her sister hadn't returned home from the wedding she had left for that morning. "We had no clue whatsoever where she was," Renu said. "We expected her to be home at 5, 6 o'clock and it was already 8. It's not like my sister to be late for anything." Renu's 15-year old sister Shamima wasn't replying to texts, voicemails or Facebook messages. At that point, Renu rang the police.
Two miles away in another part of East London, Fetia Abase was also worried. Her 15-year old daughter Amira had switched off her phone and it was equally uncharacteristic of her to be out so late. "She doesn't even like to get the bus if it's dark," Fetia said. "We live in Poplar but sometimes she asks her dad or me to meet her just 15 minutes away and travel back home together."
The families could have no idea that their children were on their way to join the so-called Islamic State (IS). On February 17 Shamima, Amira, and a third girl, Kadiza Sultana, were already on a plane to Turkey, with the intention of crossing the border to Syria. Apparently coerced by another student from their school who had already made the journey, the three had hidden their plans from their parents to make the near-3,000 mile trip. As details emerged over the coming days, their departure revealed a stark new truth: That IS was actively grooming children to join its ranks.
In a series of interviews over the next few months, VICE News attempted to understand the families' plight. The circumstances are unlike almost any other, because the children of the families are alive and, on the face of it, have voluntarily travelled to a warzone. At the same time, however, the families view their loved ones as victims — of whatever had pushed them to Syria, and of what might happen to them in IS.
Watch the VICE News documentary, The Girls Who Fled To Syria: Groomed By The Islamic State here:
On February 18 police visited the two families. "At around 10am three officers came round," Renu said. "They asked the same questions they had done the night before. Where had she gone, what was she wearing, had anything gone missing from the house." By now she'd discovered that another family member's passport was missing and a pair of bangles had gone as well.
"I told them that the bangles were worth about 200 pounds ($310). Then about half an hour into the conversation the officer in charge turns to me and says, 'Oh, but we all know where she is.' At that point my mind just exploded." Renu looked at the officer's business card. He was from counter-terrorism.
Fetia's experience echoed Renu's, but when counter-terrorism officers visited her house at midday on February 18, it hadn't occurred to her to check whether Amira's passport was missing.
"[The police] came round but instead of asking me questions, they just spoke to my other daughter who's 13 years old," she said. "After the questions they finished writing and then they told us: 'Amira has flown to Turkey with Shamima.'"
Fetia said she then asked about Kadiza, a 16-year-old school friend whose cousin's wedding Amira had said she was going to. The police told Fetia they didn't know about Kadiza at that point. "That day, my life was finished."
At that moment Fetia realized the police were not dealing with Amira's disappearance as an ordinary missing persons case; her daughter was being treated as a potential terror suspect.
Sure enough, on February 20, the three girls became international news. Shamima, Amira, Kadiza, all students at the same school, became the most well-known Westerners to be suspected of joining IS. They weren't the first people from the UK to join the extremist organization — at least 700 are estimated to have made the journey to Syria — but there was something about their age, gender, and the ease with which the girls left that captured the public's attention.
Although the police deny telling the families about the girls' whereabouts in this way, Fetia and Renu say this was the first time they realized that when it comes to terrorism, even when teenage schoolchildren were concerned, the families are the last to know.
Renu and Fetia were assisted by a lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee. He would put their peculiar situation into context.
"The problem is that one wrong step and it becomes a terrorism case for them as well," he told VICE News. "The kids have gone out and joined a terrorist organization. Now any assistance that the families give to the kids who are now, on one view, members of a terrorist organization, would itself be a terrorist offence. What normal parents do in normal situations, those options aren't available to these families."
The three girls were not the only ones to run away from Bethnal Green Academy. A fourth pupil, 15-year-old Sharmeena Begum, went missing in December 2014, and while the other parents knew she had not returned to school after the Christmas holidays, they presumed this had something to do with her home situation. Sharmeena's mother had died of lung cancer earlier in the year. She wasn't getting along with her father's new wife and had decided to live with her maternal grandmother in East London. In the absence of news of where she was, parents at the school presumed she had returned to Bangladesh.
In fact Sharmeena had already joined IS and the decision to withhold this was taken by the police and senior teachers at the school while they conducted meetings between the counter-terrorism officers and seven of Sharmeena's friends. Among them were Shamima, Amira, and Kadiza.
"The school definitely had a responsibility to let us know what was going on," Kadiza's cousin, Fahmida Aziz, told VICE News when I met all of the families together for the first time in early March. Amira's father, Hussen, said he felt undermined. By then the families had discovered that the police had made one attempt to contact them.
Letters had been given to the girls to pass on to their parents two months into the police investigation, seeking formal witness statements from the girls about Sharmeena's disappearance. The girls had hidden them, but the families saw this as a failure on the part of the school. In normal circumstances they'd expect letters home for even the most prosaic matters, such as a school photograph, an event, or even if they were in detention.
Amira's mother said that if she had known that Sharmeena had gone to Syria she would have had a chance to stop Amira leaving.
"We would have taken her passport, we wouldn't have let her go to after school club for revision, we just would have kept our eyes on her," Fetia said.
Amira's parents were not informed by the police or the school. They did not even know that their daughter had gone to Syria until they saw it leading televisions news broadcasts.
It would later emerge that in fact Sharmeena was a much bigger threat than either the police or the school realized. The recruitment tactics used by IS were already at play when they began interviewing the girls. Multiple sources working close to the case revealed to VICE News that Sharmeena had in fact been attempting to radicalize Shamima, Amira, and Kadiza since the previous September — shortly after she was radicalized herself during the summer vacation.
An individual who works with radicalized girls on a daily basis, and therefore wanted to remain anonymous, told VICE News that in fact this is quite common.
"If there is one girl who has made contact with someone out there and they've been radicalized, they will probably be asked to try and convince others in getting them to believe what you do. It would be something they'd naturally want to do and something they'd be asked to do."
The discovery of the letters prompted the UK Home Affairs Select Committee to convene a hearing on the case of the three girls. The group of parliamentarians, made up of members from the Britain's dominant political parties, sought evidence from the families, the police, as well as the Turkish ambassador, to find out what each knew and when.
The families would use the occasion as a chance to put forward a case for being let down by the people who were meant to be responsible for their children. The police would take the stage to explain that nothing untoward had taken place and there was no way of knowing that the three girls were planning on leaving.
The surprise of the March 10 hearing came when Mark Rowley, the London Metropolitan police's head of counter-terrorism, announced that if the girls were to come home then he'd have no evidence to charge them with any terrorism offences. It was an unprecedented result for the families, who'd achieved their aim to have the girls seen as victims in the eyes of the law.
Shamima's sister Renu appeared at the committee and described her sister afterwards in an interview with VICE News.
"I wouldn't describe her as adventurous," she said. "She doesn't like to go by herself to buy pint of milk, for example. She likes reading, watching TV. She did normal stuff that normal people do. She was a brilliant student. You don't question a child who's done her homework and has got straight As."
"She wasn't particularly religious," Renu added. "She started wearing a scarf in year 10 [when children are 14-15] because my mum asked her to, but she didn't have a problem wearing it because all her friends wore it and she felt like the odd one out.
"In a way she was relieved when mum asked her to — although mum would still have to nag her to pray."
Shamima was naive and not religious, Renu said, but according to the anonymous radicalization expert, none of this is unusual. "They say to hand in coursework. To be really conscientious at work. Everything to throw people off guard so they don't get suspicious."
The expert recounted previous cases she'd worked on. "One girl was even scared to go upstairs on her own before she was planning to leave the country. When she told me the process of how it happened she said it was continuous, consistent, people speaking with them repeating the same thing, over and over and over again that led to this person thinking about leaving.
"Their propaganda has been so effective to these young girls," the expert added. "One of them even described it as an Islamic Disneyland."
Amira's parents always maintained that they were the last people to guess their daughters had decided to travel to IS. Fetia would proudly describe that Amira had interviews at prestigious colleges lined up and that she was revising all the time for her GCSE secondary school qualifications. She'd also torture herself with potential clues that she'd missed before Amira left, such as her daughter's plea to change her cell phone and number.
When the media came across footage of Amira's father at a rally that was also attended by extremists, such as controversial preacher Anjem Choudary, the family were unflinching. "This is a bit nonsense really," Hussen told VICE News. "They label you a fanatic, and a radical and a terrorist just for exercising your freedom. I was just amazed to have that freedom and grateful to be in a country where it's possible to go on a march."
Hussen's own journey to the UK had been long and risky. He'd been smuggled out of Ethiopia at the age of 16 after objecting to his country's war against Eritrea. When he reached Germany he had to spend six years in a refugee camp before gaining citizenship there. "Maybe it was difficult for Amira to grow up in a foreign home," he said. "I am not an overbearing father and didn't dictate at all. All I ever did was support her."
There was an irony in the way Hussen had started to analyze himself. His experience had dragged him through UK parliament and police stations and his picture had been printed widely across the media. In many ways it had taken him closer to the heart of the British establishment than most natives would get, yet despite this he'd started to feel like more of an outsider than ever. He had even started apologizing for his English language more frequently.
During our final meeting I suggested that Hussen must be feeling sad about the latest news that Amira is now reportedly married to an IS fighter. He paused. "Not sad," he said. "That's too small. Sadness is a part of it but really we're devastated." While I'd failed to be able to empathize fully with his situation, he'd succeeded in using English to correct my misunderstanding.
Follow Ben Ferguson on Twitter: @fergusonben