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British Police Fly to Turkey to Search for Three Teenage Girls 'Trying to Join Islamic State'

The schoolgirls, aged 15 and 16 left their East London homes last week. Their families have pleaded for them to come back — but their return poses difficult questions.

by Jenna Corderoy
Feb 23 2015, 7:30pm

Image via UK Metropolitan Police

UK police officers have traveled to Turkey to search for three missing London schoolgirls, who are feared to be trying to cross into Syria to join the Islamic State. 

The families of Shamima Begum, 15, Amira Abase, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, students from Bethnal Green Academy in east London, have made emotional appeals for their return.

"The message we have for Amira is to get back home. We miss you. We cannot stop crying. Please think twice. Don't go to Syria," said Abase's father in a public appeal on Sunday.

Last Tuesday, the three schoolgirls flew from London's Gatwick Airport to Turkey, a popular gateway to Syria and thereby to the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, after telling their parents that they would be out for the day. Border authorities have been criticized for failing to prevent the girls' departure, and it was confirmed on Monday that Begum used her sister's passport to fly to the country.

Abase Hussen said his daughter had told him she was attending a wedding on the day she left, and had given no clue as to her intention. He said: "She said 'daddy, I'm in a hurry', there was no sign to suspect her at all."

Hussen said the family had asked her about a fellow student at her school who had traveled out to Syria in December. She had responded: "I'm sad for that little girl," he recounted. 

The exact activities of the British officers in Turkey has not been revealed. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: "Officers are working closely with the Turkish authorities who are providing a great deal of assistance and support to our investigation."

Speaking to VICE News, a Home Office spokesman said: "We are concerned about the safety of individuals, particularly young people, who choose to travel and would urge those with concerns about a loved one to contact the police to ensure they are protected."

In Turkey, it is relatively easy to cross into Syria, despite the country stepping up its border control and placing thousands of people on a no-entry list, as well as EU efforts to increase the sharing of intelligence and travel databases between member states. In January, Hayat Boumeddiene, the wanted partner and alleged co-conspirator of the Paris kosher shop gunman Amedy Coulibaly, was caught on CCTV arriving at Istanbul airport and is now thought to be in Syria.

Security services were also criticized for not raising the alarm over the missing schoolgirls. A few days before they left, Begum, using Twitter, contacted Aqsa Mahmood, a British woman who went to Syria to become a "jihadi bride." Mahmood's family released a statement, who described Aqsa as a "disgrace" and her actions a "perverted and evil distortion of Islam."

According to former Metropolitan Police commander Bob Milton, there was a counter-radicalization program at the girls' school, and that the girls had been spoken to. Yet they had "satisfied the person that they were no longer at risk but that clearly wasn't the case," he told the BBC.

Women who travel to the Islamic State may quickly become disillusioned with the promise of adventure and excitement. Recently, a 10,000-word Islamic State manifesto emerged detailing the subordinate role that women must assume in the caliphate. Translated from Arabic by the Quilliam Foundation, it states: "But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband." Last October, it was widely reported that two Austrian teenage girls, held up as poster girls for the so-called caliphate, now want to come home.

The three schoolgirls may face arrest if they return to the UK. In January 2014, two British teenage girls were arrested over suspected terrorism offenses at Heathrow Airport, from where a police believed they were trying to fly to Syria, and further detentions have taken place in Europe and the United States. Last November, a mother from the Netherlands reportedly rescued her daughter from the Islamic State after making the perilous journey to its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa in response to the teenager's plea for help. Her daughter, who traveled to Syria to marry a jihadist, was arrested when she arrived in Maastricht. In January, a teenage nurse, who was arrested at Denver International Airport in the US, was sentenced to four years after admitting she had planned to travel to join the militants.

Yet the question of how best to deal with those returning from Syria has generated considerable debate. There have been numerous proposals put forward, including stripping British jihadists of their citizenship. In September 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that those who return to the UK would have to attend de-radicalization programs. Other community-based initiatives to tackle radicalization include Families Matter and Making a Stand.

But some experts say that more needs to be done to separate those who intend to import terror from the Islamic State from those who are simply young, impressionable, and disillusioned. Speaking to VICE News, Jonathan Russell of the Quilliam Foundation said that two steps need to take place when jihadis return. "First, there needs to be an assessment of the ideological state of all returning jihadists. There's a wide range of attitudes that you might come up against, ranging from the battle hardened and those committed to carrying out a terrorist attack in the UK, through to those who have been disillusioned."

He continued: "That's very important for the second step, which is tackling engagement. To some people, that would be de-radicalization, for others, that would be disengagement from violence, and for others, it would be pastoral support and care to try to rehabilitate them and integrate them into British society. There will be different things for different people depending on their ideological state and we've got to have a flexible enough system to be able to deal with that."

Recently however, there have been warnings that Britain may not be able to cope with the large number of returning jihadists. Speaking in September 2014 to the Independent, Labor parliamentarian Khalid Mahmood made a sobering admission: "We haven't got a clue how to de-radicalize those people… You can't just do this by putting those people in a mental institution or prison where there is a larger for further radicalization. Allowing them to mix in the community would make it even worse. There are steps you need to go through so that you have a sensible policy but those steps are not there," he added.

Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy