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Story Of Missing Schoolgirls Captivates Britain


An international search is on for three British teenage girls. They snuck away from their homes in London last week and caught a flight to Istanbul. British police now believe the girls have left Turkey and crossed into Syria. There's concern they're hoping to join the group that calls itself the Islamic State or ISIS. Thousands of Europeans have made similar journeys to join the war in Syria. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from London to tell us more about this case. And Ari, first, can you just tell us about these three girls? Who are they?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Yes, their names are Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana. They're school friends. Two of them are 15 years old and one is 16. They're described as good students, modern, well-integrated, well-adjusted kids. Last week was a school holiday across England called half-term break, and the girls gave their families plausible excuses for why they would be out of the house for a little while, and then they went to Gatwick airport and boarded a flight from London to Istanbul. As you say, at this point, they are believed to have crossed into Syria.

MCEVERS: And so how are their families reacting to this?

SHAPIRO: The parents say the girls never said an emotional goodbye. They did their schoolwork up until the last moment. The parents say they never heard their daughters express interest in events in the Middle East. And of course, the families now are totally distraught. This is Renu Begum, the older sister of one of the girls, Shamima Begum.


RENU BEGUM: She didn't take anything with her. We're kind of just clinging onto the bits that we have. We just want her to come home. If you watch this, baby, please come home. Mom needs you more than anything in the world. You're our baby and we just want you home. We want you safe. Just contact anybody. Let them know that you need help.

MCEVERS: Wow. What more do we know about these families? What is their background?

SHAPIRO: Two of the families have roots in Bangladesh. One has roots in Ethiopia. But they live really in more or less Central London, like one subway stop from where I'm talking to you right now. And to all appearances, they're very well integrated into contemporary society.

MCEVERS: And so, Ari, how have British authorities been responding to this? I know there's been a lot of finger-pointing between officials there and in Turkey.

SHAPIRO: Right. We're told the behind-the-scenes investigators are working very hard. A team from Britain has gone to Turkey. But publicly, everyone is blaming everyone else. Turkey's deputy prime minister today accused the U.K. of waiting to ring the alarm. Bulent Arinc said it is a condemnable act for Britain to let three girls come to Istanbul and then let us know three days later. He went on saying 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. Then Scotland Yard pointed the finger back at Turkey, saying British authorities notified their Turkish counterparts within 24 hours of the girls' disappearance. And meanwhile, the British Prime Minister David Cameron is blaming Internet companies like Twitter, saying they need to do more to stop online radicalization, and also blaming airlines, saying they need to take steps to stop teenagers from traveling to the Mideast to join ISIS.

MCEVERS: If that's what Cameron is saying about Internet companies, I mean, does that mean that authorities believe these girls were convinced to go to Syria online?

SHAPIRO: That's the working theory. One of these girls was in contact on Twitter with a 20-year-old woman from Glasgow who left for Syria more than a year ago, and authorities say the woman in Syria was having her Twitter account monitored so that should have been a warning flag. But it apparently went unnoticed. Authorities also interviewed these girls earlier this year when someone else from their school went to Syria, but they reached the conclusion that these girls were not at risk.

MCEVERS: One last question. Why is this case getting so much more publicity than the cases of other people who have gone to join the fight in Syria?

SHAPIRO: Right. Well, British authorities believe some 500 people from the U.K. have gone to fight in Syria, but the vast majority of them have been men. The women who've gone over have rarely been as young as these girls. And these teenagers seemed well integrated into society, which makes this a really frightening scenario for parents who may feel that even if they try to do everything right, their kids could still be at risk.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro in London. Thanks so much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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