Three British girls who left their homes to join the extremist group Islamic State are believed to have crossed into Syria, London police said Tuesday.
Counter-terrorism officers said they have reason to believe that the three teenage friends are no longer in Turkey, a common entry point into the war-torn country, and have successfully crossed the border.
Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, left their East London homes last Tuesday, telling their families they were going to be out for the day.
They were later captured on surveillance videos passing through security at Gatwick Airport and boarding a flight to the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Their families issued desperate pleas for their safe return, saying they had no indication the girls had been radicalized or planned to join Islamic State.
British authorities and their Turkish counterparts launched a massive search for the girls, hoping that snow and wintry conditions in Istanbul may have slowed their attempt to get across the border. On Tuesday, it appeared those efforts had been in vain.
The BBC reported that they may have been smuggled into Syria as early as five days ago, near the Kilis border crossing. And Scotland Yard issued a statement saying it believed the girls "are no longer in Turkey and have crossed into Syria."
"We are extremely concerned for the safety of these young girls and would urge anyone with information to come forward and speak to police," said Cmdr. Richard Walton, a member of the force's counter-terrorism command.
The girls were friends at Bethnal Green Academy in East London and are thought to have made contact over the Internet with known extremists and followed Islamic State social media accounts.
A fourth girl from the same school is believed to have traveled to Syria in December.
Questions have been raised about how three unaccompanied teenagers were able to pass through airport security and board a flight to Turkey without raising any red flags, especially given that it is a known route into Islamic State-controlled territory.
The fate of the girls has also sparked a diplomatic spat between Britain and Turkey in recent days.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said British officials notified his country about the missing girls Friday – three days after they disappeared. He said that it was "a condemnable act" to not keep Turkish authorities adequately informed and that Britain was to blame if the girls were not found.
FOR THE RECORD
Feb. 24, 1:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc's last name as Aric.
"They haven't taken the necessary measures," he told reporters Monday. "It would be great if we can find them. But if we can't, it is not us who will be responsible, but the British."
Scotland Yard hit back at those claims Tuesday, saying that British officials had contacted the foreign liaison officers at the Turkish Embassy on Wednesday, the day after the friends went missing.
"Since then, we have been working closely with the Turkish authorities who are providing great assistance and support to our investigation," a police spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.