Pressure mounted on British counter-terrorism authorities Monday to explain why they failed to stop three teenage girls from boarding a flight to Turkey on what their families fear was a journey to join Islamic State in Syria.
“The security services have serious questions to answer,” said the family of another young British woman who went to Syria to marry an Islamic State fighter, and who was apparently in touch with the three teens before they left.
Fighting back tears and clutching personal keepsakes, the families of the three girls made emotional appeals Sunday for their safe return.
“We miss you. We can’t stop crying,” Amira Abase’s father said while holding a teddy bear wearing a Chelsea Football Club jersey that the 15-year-old gave her mother on Mothers’ Day. “Please think twice. Don’t go to Syria.”
He spoke, along with other family members, during a series of emotional interviews at Scotland Yard as authorities launched an international hunt for the three British students.
"Mum needs you more than anything in the world," Renu Begum, the tearful older sister of 15-year-old Shamima Begum, pleaded in another taped interview with British broadcasters. "You're our baby. We just want you home, we want you safe."
The sister of the third missing girl, Kadiza Sultana, 16, made a direct appeal to her sibling to end their misery: “Find the courage in your heart to contact us and let us know you are OK, that is all we ask.”
The families did not criticize British officials, but others have raised questions about how the teens were allowed to leave the country.
As recently as Feb. 15, Shamima is believed to have made contact with Aqsa Mahmood, the 20-year-old Scottish woman who went to Syria in 2013 to marry an Islamic State fighter.
“Follow me so I can [direct message] you back,” Shamima tweeted.
Mahmood has been an active advocate of the terror group on Twitter and her family says her social media presence has been monitored closely since her disappearance.
The Mahmood family said Aqsa has inflicted “misery” on them, which is only compounded by knowing she might have now have destroyed other families. They issued the statement criticizing British security services.
“Despite alleged contact between the girls and Aqsa, they failed to stop them from leaving the U.K. to Turkey, a staging post for Syria,” they said.
The family's lawyer, Aamer Anwar, said he assumed that anti-terrorism officials were monitoring Aqsa and, if so, should have alerted the families of the three girls. He called it a basic child protection issue.
"They're clearly being radicalized and recruited online, which means that the security services would, at the very least, have been monitoring these radicals," he said in an interview. "If they knew about this information, why did they not make contact with the families and alert them to the fact that they might be at risk?"
“How many more families is this going to happen to?” he added.
The missing students all attended Bethnal Green Academy in East London, where they gave no indication they had been radicalized, police said.
They were off school on a weeklong mid-semester vacation and told their families they were heading out for the day.
Amira told her father, Abase Hussen, she was going to a wedding and her parting words to him were “Daddy, I’m in a hurry.”
“There was no sign to suspect her at all,” he said.
Surveillance camera footage shows the girls passing through security at Gatwick Airport before they caught the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul.
Shamima is believed to have traveled on her 17-year-old sister’s passport, the BBC reported.
Police said the girls had been interviewed in December after another girl from their school left for Syria, but there were no indications they were at risk.
Renu Begum said she spoke to her sister Shamima after the friend disappeared.
“I asked her: ‘You wouldn’t do anything stupid like that?’” Renu said. “She said: ‘No.’ She was upset that her friend had left and she didn’t know why she had done it.”
Renu said the family is holding out hope that Shamima might be traveling to Syria to try and rescue her friend.
“It’s in her kind nature to do something like that, to bring back a friend,” Renu said. “We are hoping that’s what she’s gone to do.”
Boyle is a special correspondent