Tuesday 24 October 2017

Family appeal for return of teen girls allegedly Syria-bound to join extremists

The family home of the 15 year old from Bristol who along along with a 17-year-old from Lambeth, south London, have gone missing and may be trying to get to Syria to join extremists in the war torn state
The family home of the 15 year old from Bristol who along along with a 17-year-old from Lambeth, south London, have gone missing and may be trying to get to Syria to join extremists in the war torn state

Rod Minchin, Margaret Davis and Claire Hayhurst

The "distraught" family of a missing British girl believed to be heading to join extremists in Syria have pleaded for her to come home.

The 15-year-old from Bristol is thought to have met up with a 17-year-old girl from London and headed to Turkey, where they are trying to cross the border into the neighbouring war-torn state.

The teenagers both vanished from their homes last week amid fears the pair have been radicalised.

The 15-year-old girl's family, who are Somali, said in a statement: "Please come back. We miss you very much. You are not in any trouble. We just want you to be safe and to come home as soon as possible."

Two police officers outside The City Academy in Bristol, where a 15 year old girl believed to be travelling to Syria attends
Two police officers outside The City Academy in Bristol, where a 15 year old girl believed to be travelling to Syria attends

Family spokeswoman Anira Khokhar said she was an "intelligent, beautiful young lady" and described reports she was heading to Syria as "speculation".

"The family have lost a daughter and that is the most important thing here," she told reporters outside the girl's home in the Easton area of the city.

"The daughter is missing and we need to all ensure that we respect the family at this particular point in time.

"They are just a family whose daughter is somewhere they are unaware of and she is in danger.

"The family is very distraught but I think they are far more upset that the media is camping outside their house.

"They can't go outside, they have little kids in there. We have to ensure that as a British community we all come together and unite and protect those young kids.

"They are a very small, tight, Somali family and they are very reserved. They have a lot of the Somali community coming to support them in all this."

Ms Khokhar said the Somali community in Bristol, which is thought to be the largest in the UK outside London, was supporting the girl's family and the priority was to find her.

"At the moment it is speculation and all these words flying around in the media... jihadist, radicalisation, extremism... there is no proof at present," she said.

"The last thing they want to see about their sister is words such as 'jihadist bride' or 'radicalisation' and 'extremism' - that's not the case at this present moment.

"It doesn't matter what religion or race you are, there is a girl that is missing and we have to ensure that she is in safe hands and we are going to protect them.

"With regards to the Somali community they are a very strong community, they are a very united community, let them unite at this time. They need to be there for one another."

Ms Khokhar added: "With regards to her family she is an intelligent, beautiful young lady who is being missed by her family and that's all that matters at this present moment."

Hibaq Jama, a Labour councillor for St Lawrence ward in Bristol, said the teenager had left for school as usual on the morning of her disappearance but was not there when her father went to collect her that afternoon.

She described the girl, who dreamt of becoming a dentist, as "incredibly bright, articulate and popular" and said her family were "absolutely devastated", adding: "They are distraught."

Police were on duty outside The City Academy, Bristol, where the girl is a pupil.

Officers are investigating whether the pair - who have not been named - travelled together from Heathrow Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, on their way to Syria.

The girls' disappearance follows that of twins Zahra and Salma Halane, 16, from Manchester, who are thought to have travelled to Syria in July.

British authorities have expressed increasing concern about hundreds of UK-born would-be jihadis who have gone to join Islamist forces in the Middle Eastern state.

Today Home Secretary Theresa May said she has so far removed the passports of 25 Britons trying to get there, while 103 people have been arrested in relation to terrorism in Syria. Of those arrested, 24 have been charged and five convicted.

Louisa Rolfe, assistant chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, said: "We can confirm that a 15-year-old student from Bristol has travelled to Turkey and we understand she may be attempting to make her way to Syria.

"Since she was reported missing by her parents we've carried out extensive work to trace her footsteps from the time she left home to her arrival in Istanbul, Turkey."

The London teenager, from Lambeth, is also of Somali descent and was last seen at around 7am on September 24 when she left her home.

Ms Rolfe said the priority for police is finding the Bristol girl before she crosses the border from Turkey to Syria.

"We're giving every support we can to her family; we want to find out where she is and encourage her to return safely," she said.

"Our officers are working closely with the Metropolitan Police and their network of international liaison officers to find her.

"There are indications she may have been radicalised but at the moment our priority is to find her before she crosses the border to Syria and make sure she is safe.

"We must all be vigilant and ready to spot the signs of radicalisation.

"Often, young Muslims who go to Syria can be naive and don't recognise that they are being sucked into joining extremist groups.

"This is not about criminalising these young people, it's about preventing tragedies."

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