Relatives of radicalised London schoolgirls have questions not answers
Families of teenagers who went to Syria to join IS are critical of police
Sahima Begum (sister of Shamima Begum) and Abase Hussen (father of Amira Abase ) leave the Houses of Parliament in London, after giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee after three schoolgirls are feared to have joined Islamic State in war-torn Syria. Photograph: PA Wire
Nearing the end of his appearance before the House of Commons’s home affairs committee, Labour MP Keith Vaz asked him if he had any advice to offer parents who fear that one of their children might try to make the same journey.
Shoulders hunched, clutching a walking-stick, the 47-year-old Hussen Abase, who looks older than his years, replied disconsolately: “Simply I would be say be vigilant, not to fall into the same trap.”
Hussen Abase, however, has questions, not answers. A friend of his daughter’s who went to the same school in east London, the Bethnal Green Academy, travelled to Syria in December, prompting an investigation by the Metropolitan Police. Seven girls in the school were questioned by officers, including his daughter.
“The letter shouldn’t have been given to a 15-year-old: a letter about counter-terrorism. To deal with that is a heavy burden for a 15-year-old. We are supposed to know these things,” Abase said
Meanwhile, Bethnal Academy had equally been told by counter-terrorism police not to tell anyone – including the parents of its pupils – that one of its students had travelled to Syria.
The letters were not passed on by his daughter or by Shamima Begum (15), or their friend Kadiza Sultana (16), who all flew to Istanbul last month. Instead, the families heard only that a girl in the school “had gone missing”.
Once the alarm was raised, the families complain the Metropolitan Police did not act quickly enough – especially now it has emerged that the girls waited for nearly 18 hours at a bus station in Istanbul.
“We were told that police were on the ground looking for them,” said Sahima Begum, older sister of Shamima Begum, “We kept asking . . . and we were told, ‘Yes, we do, yes we do.’ We were told their photos had been circulated. But the girls were in the bus station.”
Relations between the three families and police are poor, and worsened by the decision to appoint an officer they blame for not alerting them as a liaison officer. The officer believes, said Akunjee, that Bethnal Academy was responsible for ensuring the warning letters were passed on to the families of the seven girls questioned. The school, in turn, says it gave him the addresses when requested to do so.
Later, Akunjee complained the same officer had called one of the families and told them “not to listen to me” – not realising that the solicitor was sitting in the same room as them when the call came through.
Minutes after they had finished giving evidence, the Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, read from a prepared statement, apologising that the letter had not reached them.
“First of all we’re sorry if the family feel like that, clearly it’s a terrible situation they find themselves in, having lost their daughters in such a horrible way. You can only half imagine what a parent is going through at this time.Also sorry the letter we intended to get through, didn’t get through . . . It was intended for them and failed and for that of course we’re sorry.”