DENVER (AP) — One of three suburban Denver girls who authorities say tried to join Islamic State militants in Syria was confused about what her role would be if she had actually made it there, the girl’s father said Tuesday.
“She told me they were going to get there and somebody is going to contact them,” said the father of a 16-year-old Sudanese girl, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he is concerned for the girls’ safety. “I ask her, ‘Who’s that person?’ She actually didn’t have a clear idea about what’s going on. They’re just like, you know, stupid little girls. They just want to do something, and they do it.”
The FBI says the 16-year-old and her friends, 15- and 17-year-old sisters of Somali descent, were headed toward Turkey en route to Syria when authorities stopped them on Oct. 20 at the Frankfurt, Germany airport. They sent them back to Denver, where FBI agents again interviewed them before releasing them to their parents without pressing charges.
They’re safe now, but the father said he is still troubled by lingering questions about their intentions, who recruited them online and how they were so easily able to board a plane and head overseas.
The FBI is focusing on what contacts they had in Syria, having searched the girls’ computers for clues. “What they did is unacceptable, and they changed their lives, and they changed our lives,” he said, adding that he pulled his daughter out of school. She hasn’t had contact with her friends. She told her father she was afraid to talk to him about going to Syria because she knew he would oppose it. “She realizes she made a mistake.”
He said he became concerned Oct. 17, when his daughter’s high school called to say she had not shown up for classes. He texted her, and she responded that she was just late, but she didn’t return home, and her brother mentioned a disturbing Twitter conversation from her account.
“She asked her friends to pray for her because she and the other two girls … and at that time, I just knew that something really bad was going to happen,” he said. Then, he noticed her passport missing. He called the FBI and his state lawmaker, Rep. Daniel Kagan, for help.
Authorities said the girls had saved their money and stole from their parents to buy their tickets in cash at a Lufthansa counter at Denver International Airport. Their overseas trip raised no red flags. The U.S. government doesn’t have any restrictions on children flying alone, domestically or internationally. Most U.S. airlines allow children 12 and older to fly alone but often with restrictions on international flights.
The girl left behind her laptop, which showed she had been researching whether minors could travel alone and if an entry visa to Turkey was required. The father wasn’t sure how his daughter, a typical high school girl who likes going to the movies and the mall, was lured to terrorism online. Officials have said one of the girls had planned the voyage and encouraged the others to come along.
The family moved to the U.S. in 2001 and to Colorado three years ago after living in Lincoln, Nebraska. Less was known about the Somali family, but those close to them said they have been in Colorado for years. Their father, who works as a hotel housekeeper, is from Mogadishu.
Members of southeast Denver’s tight-knit East African community are now concerned other children will follow the girls’ path. The FBI has been investigating whether they had friends or associates with similar intentions.
“This is now an open wound,” said Halimo Hashi, a Somali immigrant who owns an African fashion boutique among a jumble of ethnic markets and restaurants where the girls’ father often visits. “I’m concerned about other kids now falling into that trap because of the attention those girls are getting.”