UK
21/02/2015 05:25 GMT | Updated 21/02/2015 09:00 GMT

Schoolgirls 'Heading For Islamic State' Could Have Been Stopped If Airline Had Intervened, Police Say

Questions have been raised over how three runaway schoolgirls were able to leave the country so easily, amid fears they have fled to Syria to join Islamic State.

Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and an un-named 15-year-old, all from east London, are good friends with another 15-year-old girl who fled to Syria in December. Police today confirmed they had spoken to the girls in connection with the disappearance of their friend, but it was a "routine enquiry".

"There was nothing to suggest at the time that the girls themselves were at risk, and indeed their disappearance has caused a great deal of surprise, not least to their own families," a spokesman for the Met Police said.

The three girls left their homes before 8am on Tuesday providing their families with "plausible" reasons as to why they would be out for the day. They boarded a Turkish Airlines flight, TK1966, which departed at 12.40 to Istanbul, Turkey and landed at 18.40 local time. Turkish Airlines did not notify police that the girls were on board the flight.

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Kadiza Sultana, one of the runaway schoolgirls

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Her fellow Bethnal Green Academy pupil is Shamima Begum

Police have said they may have been able to intervene before the girls departed had they been notified by the airline.

The girls' departure, unaccompanied by adults, to a country known to be "a staging post to Syria" should have raised suspicions, an expert has said. "The fact that this is still happening shows that security needs to be stepped up," Emily Dyer, a research fellow specialising in Islamism and terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, told the Daily Mail.

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David Cameron has urged schools to recognise their role in the "fight against Islamist extremist terror".

Speaking in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, Mr Cameron said: "It is deeply concerning and obviously our authorities will do everything we can to help these girls. But it does make a broader point which is the fight against Islamist extremist terror is not just one that we can wage by the police and border control.

"It needs every school, every university, every college, every community to recognise they have a role to play. We all have a role to play in stopping people from having their minds poisoned by this appalling death cult."

Salman Farsi, spokesman for the East London Mosque, said: "They have been misled. I do not know what was promised to them. It is just sad. We have not had anything like this before in our community.

"I do not know what was told to them but if they do go to Syria, it is a war zone and there are serious ramifications for going in to a war zone. Some of the things we have seen happening in Syria are not very nice. We just want to see them brought back.

"I think the girls need to know they have done nothing wrong. They have been manipulated."

The local MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, said there was "deep concern" in the community at the way young people were being radicalised.

"The community is very concerned. There is shock in what's just happened. This is a close-knit community," she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "One of the things that we have got to do as a country is make sure that schools and teachers and parents who are concerned get advice and help. We need to make sure that we counter these ideologies. This is like grooming, this is child exploitation, and in the worst-case scenario they are potentially being used as weapons of war in those countries."

Mussurut Zia, general secretary of the Muslim Women's Network UK, said she had "grave concerns" for the girls and warned it was unlikely they would be able to return home should they join Islamic State in Syria.

She told BBC Breakfast: "Not for a moment do I believe the girls know what they're getting into. I don't think they will be told the true reality.

"I don't think they will be actually fighting on the front line... I think they will be used. Jihadi brides is a notion that's been expressed before - there's no root in that in religion - but quite possibly that is something they would be used for. I don't think there is any return for them. I don't see how they would be able to get back."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "The idea of 15-year-old British schoolgirls setting off to Syria is very disturbing, and shows that more action is urgently needed to stop young people being drawn into extremism and conflict, and to help families and communities who are trying to counteract extremist recruitment messages."

Photo gallerySchoolgirls headed to Syria See Gallery

The three girls who all go to the Bethnal Green Academy school, are described as "straight-A students" and the school was recently rated "Outstanding" by Ofsted. They flew from Gatwick Airport on Tuesday without leaving any messages behind and their families are "devastated" by their disappearance, according to Commander Richard Walton, head of the Metropolitan Police's counter terror command.

He said there was a "good chance" the girls were still in Turkey but the force has been "increasingly concerned" by a growing trend of young girls showing an interest or intent in joining IS, an organisation now notorious for its barbaric

treatment of hostages and oppression of women.

Shamima is described as approximately 5ft 7in, and wearing black thick rimmed glasses, a black hijab, light brown and black leopard print scarf, dark red jumper, black trousers and jacket, carrying a dark blue cylindrical shape holdall with white straps. She is a British national of Bangladeshi heritage and speaks English with a London accent. She also speaks Bengali.

Kadiza is described as 5ft 6in and of slim build. She was wearing black rimmed glasses, a long black jacket with a hood, grey striped scarf, grey jumper, dark red trousers, carrying a black holdall. She is also a British national of Bangladeshi heritage and speaks English with a London accent and also speaks Bengali.

The third missing girl, who is not being named, is described as 5ft 6in and of slim build, wearing black thick rimmed glasses, black head scarf, long dark green jacket with fur lined hood, light yellow long sleeved top, black trousers, white trainers carrying a black Nike holdall. She speaks English and Amharic, an Ethiopian language.

Anyone with any information about where the three girls are should call the police incident room via the free phone Anti-Terrorist Hotline number on 0800 789 321.

Photo gallerySchoolgirls headed to Syria See Gallery