The families of the missing east London schoolgirls who traveled to Syria to join Islamic State (IS) said today that UK police "let them walk out," as it emerged that officers spoke to the teenagers twice before their disappearance — without their parents' knowledge or permission.
Kadiza Sultana, 16, and 15-year-olds Shamima Begum, and Amira Abase are believed to have traveled to Syria to join IS. Their disappearance was announced on February 20.
The three teens were informally questioned by London's Metropolitan Police in December and February at Bethnal Green Academy about a fourth schoolmate who had traveled to Syria separately — but neither the school nor the police informed the girls' parents.
"We were undermined as a family," said Abase Hussen, the father of Amira Abase.
In an interview with VICE News, the families of the girls criticized both police and the school for not informing them that the girls had been approached by the Met.
"The school definitely had a responsibility to let us know at least what was going on," Fahmida Aziz, the cousin of Kadiza Sultana, told VICE News.
"I just feel like the police allowed that to happen," added Jubeyda Rauf, the 16-year-old sister of Kadiza Sultana. "It seemed like they had more information, they knew what they were doing.
"I just feel like they let them walk out. That's how it feels."
Police addressed letters to the parents of the three girls, which have been seen by VICE News, requesting permission for a statement relating to the disappearance of a separate 15-year old from Bethnal Green Academy who went missing in December.
In the letters, dated February 2, which were given to seven girls in total, a detective wrote: "I would like to take a handwritten statement (which is a verbal account) from your daughter that will not take any longer than 2 hours and this will cover [redacted] and her religious beliefs; lifestyle and the circumstances just before [redacted] left the UK."
Instead of delivering the letters to the homes of the girls, however, officers handed them to the teenagers to take home. The parents never saw the letters. In Amira's case, it was only when her father realized that she had disappeared that he found the letter in her bedroom.
The families fear that the authorities' intervention may have influenced the girls' decision to leave, Fahmida Aziz said.
"Were they feeling victimized by police?" she said. "Were they feeling criminalised? 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.
The nature of the investigation into the disappearance of the first 15-year old to go missing from Bethnal Green Academy, who can't be named for legal reasons, was also criticized by the local council lead on counterterrorism.
"[Counter-terrorism command] SO15 did [the investigation] how they wanted to do it," Nojmul Hussain, the manager in the London borough of Tower Hamlets of the UK's Prevent program to combat radicalization, told VICE News. "No risk assessments were done around how they could support other students who came into contact with the girl."
The Metropolitan Police asked Tower Hamlets council to "categorically 'step aside'" when the first 15-year old disappeared, he added.
Hussain, whose job it is to lead on the safeguarding and de-radicalization of anyone who is potentially at risk of extremism, said he did not learn about the teenager's disappearance until January 2015, at which point the police had taken complete control of the investigation.
"There are a lot of lessons that must be taken from the way the investigation was handled, the main one being the value of information sharing from the outset," he said.
"The Metropolitan Police Service has been engaged with staff at the girls' school since December 2014 as part of the routine inquiry by officers investigating the disappearance of their friend," a Metropolitan Police spokesperson said in a statement.
"There was nothing to suggest at the time that the girls themselves were at risk and indeed their disappearance has come as a great surprise, not least to their own families," the statement continued. "The girls were spoken to in December 2014 as part of the routine inquiry by officers investigating the disappearance of their friend. We continue to liaise with the school and local education authority in connection with this ongoing investigation."
Bethnal Green Academy did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
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