Fifteen-year-old Shamima Begum (possibly traveling under the name of Aklima Begum), Kadiza Sultana, 16, and another 15-year-old whose family wishes to withhold her name, left their homes on Tuesday at 8 a.m. and met at Gatwick Airport, where they boarded a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. The three girls are students at Bethnal Green Academy in London. The girls are friends with another girl who reportedly ran away to Syria in December.
“We are extremely concerned for the safety of these young girls and would urge anyone with information to come forward and speak to police. Our priority is the safe return of these girls to their families,” Counter Terrorism Command Commander Richard Walton said in a statement reported by The Independent.
Why would three teenage girls wish to join forces with a jihadist group in a tumultuous country?
In September, the CIA estimated that 2,000 Westerners had joined the Islamic State in Syria. The group is surprisingly adept at recruiting fighters, mainly because they utilize high-quality propaganda, they appeal to people’s sense of religious obligation, and provides a sense of identity, essentially preying on “Western youth who are disillusioned and have no sense of purpose or belonging,” the Monitor reported in October.
The three Londoners are only a few of the young people who have tried to join the Islamic State in recent months. In October, three schoolgirls from Denver skipped class and stole $2,000 from their parents to fly to Turkey to join the militant group. One 19-year-old American nurse aid was arrested at the Denver International Airport for her plans to marry an Islamic State member she met online. Another teen, from a Chicago suburb, was arrested before boarding a flight to Turkey to join fighters in Iraq and Syria.
Commander Walton said that what is alarming about young people attempting to join the extremist group is that they do not realize that once they arrive, it will be difficult to leave if they find themselves in a situation more dangerous and less romantic than they envisioned. This rings true especially for women.
“It is an extremely dangerous place and we have seen reports of what life is like for them and how restricted their lives become. It is not uncommon for girls or women to be prevented from being allowed out of their houses or if allowed out, only when accompanied by a guardian,” Commander Walton said in his statement. “The choice of returning home from Syria is often taken away from those under the control of Islamic State, leaving their families in the UK devastated and with very few options to secure their safe return."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.