British police have flown to Turkey to look for three Muslim British schoolgirls believed to have been recruited to join the Islamic State group in Syria.
The three girls, aged 15 to 16, disappeared from their homes in London nearly a week ago and apparently flew to Istanbul, a common stop for Islamic State recruits on the way to Syria.
An investigation indicates the girls followed radical sources on social media, and at least one of them had been in touch with another British girl who went to Syria in 2013 and became a well-known Islamic State recruiter.
At the anti-radicalization Quilliam Foundation, Jonathan Russell said such girls often take on propaganda and recruiting roles themselves.
“Because their role will not be a fighting one, their role will be being wives and mothers, but it will also be a propaganda one. They will exploit their English language skills to make their videos, I am sure, and also for radicalization and recruitment of other impressionable young people, too," Russell said.
Russell said of the estimated 3,000 Europeans who have joined the Islamic State group, about 500 are believed to be women and girls.
British officials said the three girls were questioned when another girl from their school traveled to Syria last year, but added they had no indication the girls were at risk.
For months, European officials have been trying to address Islamic State recruiting.
But Russell said the role of governments should be focused on law enforcement, while families, schools and religious institutions should take the lead on protecting young people, with governments only in a supportive role.
“We should be training teachers, university lecturers, should be engaging with families, who see those vulnerable to extremism on a daily basis, can notice the changes in their behavior, their slide towards radicalization, and can therefore intervene," he said.
In recent days the girls’ families have gone public, appearing with teddy bears and other personal items they left behind.
Abase Hussen is the father of 15-year-old Amira Abase. In speaking for his family, he said,
"The message I have for Amira is to get back home, we miss you, we cannot stop crying. Please think twice."
The families said there were no indications the girls had become radicalized or that they were planning to leave.
Renu Begum, the sister of missing student Shamima Begum, said the teen did not take any clothes with her.
“We just want her to come home. If you watch this, baby, please come home. Mom needs you more than anything in the world," Renu Begum said.
The head of the school the girls attended defended its academic and counseling programs, saying it promotes democracy, tolerance and respect for other cultures.
But with all the searching for who is to blame -- the authorities, the school, the families and Islamic leaders, among others -- Quilliam Foundation's Russell said the young people share some of the responsibility.
“It is an absolute failure to be critical of the message that you are receiving, to be able to think for themselves, and to challenge that which they are hearing," he said.
Russell said social media has become “echo chambers,” leading people to similar and more radical websites and online videos every time they show any interest in a link.
If any of the girls have done anything specifically to help the Islamic State group, they may be guilty of committing a crime, under British and European laws. But if they have only responded to recruiting, they may not be in trouble.
Their families send the message all is forgiven and no punishment is planned if they will just come home.