World

British police believe 3 missing schoolgirls crossed into Syria

Feb. 23, 2015: This is three image combo of stills taken from CCTV issued by the Metropolitan Police in London. Kadiza Sultana, 16, left, Shamima Begum,15, centre and and 15-year-old Amira Abase going through security at Gatwick airport, before they caught their flight to Turkey on Tuesday Feb 17, 2015.

Feb. 23, 2015: This is three image combo of stills taken from CCTV issued by the Metropolitan Police in London. Kadiza Sultana, 16, left, Shamima Begum,15, centre and and 15-year-old Amira Abase going through security at Gatwick airport, before they caught their flight to Turkey on Tuesday Feb 17, 2015.  (AP/Metropolitan Police)

Three teenage girls who disappeared from their London homes last week are now believed to be in Syria -- potentially to join the Islamic State group, British police said Wednesday. 

The disappearance of the three British girls, ages 15 to 16, underlines fears that growing numbers in Britain and Europe are lured by online propaganda to join the Islamic State group and become "jihadi brides."

Security officials say at least 500 Britons have travelled to Syria to fight with extremists, often via Turkey. Experts estimate about 50 are female.

The three girls in the latest case -- all described as "straight-A students" from a highly-regarded London school -- went missing from their homes on Feb. 17. Authorities say they boarded a plane to Istanbul.

The families of Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, have implored them to return home.

A fourth girl from the school where the missing girls studied disappeared in December and was thought to have left for Syria. Police said detectives investigating that case spoke to the three girls at the time, but there was nothing to suggest they were at risk of radicalization.

Experts say most of the Islamic State group's recruitment of young girls is conducted online on social media, and those trying to make the journey invariably receive advice on how to conceal their tracks.

According to the Los Angeles Times, ISIS uses a sophisticated campaign on Twitter, Facebook and ask.fm to recruit Western women.  

Women are promised husbands, homes -- and even appliances like microwaves and milkshake machines, Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, told the Times. 

English-language social media accounts give instructions on how to get to Syria and how to answer potential questions from airport officials, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Ross Frenett, a researcher at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said women living in western Europe want to join the Islamic State group for many of the same reasons motivating men: A vision of an Islamic utopia, a way to address the atrocities carried out against Muslims worldwide.

"They believe they're going to a place where they will be empowered and come of age. There is a real sense of sisterly adventure, an idealistic view of what you're going to get into and a sense of camaraderie," he said.

"An awful lot of them expect adventure but what they get is drudgery, often domestic drudgery."

The case has raised questions about whether British officials were doing enough to tackle radicalization and prevent young converts from travelling to Syria.

A top Turkish official complained Monday that British officials waited three days before seeking help in the case, losing valuable time.

Turkey's deputy prime minister said the girls arrived in Istanbul as tourists, and British authorities did not share enough information for Turkey to act quickly.

"It is a condemnable act, a shameful act that a country like Britain ... did not follow (the girls) closely," Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara, the capital. "They woke up three days after the fact to notify us."

"We don't have a mechanism that allows us to question or read the minds of tourists," he added.

The Metropolitan Police disputed that account, however, saying Tuesday that they notified the Turkish embassy in London a day after the girls went missing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click for more from The Los Angeles Times.