Authorities are investigating whether three teenage girls from suburban Denver who may have been trying to join Islamic State militants in Syria have friends or associates with similar intentions.
A U.S. official said the evidence gathered so far made it clear that the girls — two sisters, ages 17 and 15, and their 16-year-old friend — were headed to Syria, though the official said investigators were still trying to determine what sort of contacts they had in that country. The official said investigators would be trying to figure out whether there were “like-minded” friends and acquaintances in the girls’ social circle.
The sisters are of Somali descent, and their friend is of Sudanese descent, The Denver Post reported.
FBI agents stopped the girls at the Frankfurt, Germany, airport over the weekend. They were then sent back to Colorado where they were safe and reunited with their families, FBI spokeswoman Suzie Payne said.
The official said the girls were headed toward Turkey en route to Syria and that investigators were now reviewing evidence, including the girls’ computers.
Another U.S. official called the case “concerning” both to the community and to the country in general.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation by name.
The girls’ fathers reported them missing after they skipped school Friday, taking their passports and, in the sisters’ case, $2,000 in cash.
But the families had no indication of where they might have gone, said Glenn Thompson, bureau chief of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Department, whose officers took the missing persons report.
The report contains details of the girls’ movements.
Upon their return, they told deputies they stayed in the Frankfurt airport for an entire day before being detained, questioned and returned to Denver, where they were further questioned by the FBI and sent home.
They told authorities they had gone to Germany for “family” but wouldn’t elaborate.
Suspicion arose when the sisters’ father realized his daughters were gone after saying they were staying home sick. They had taken $2,000 and their passports.
The 16-year-old girl’s father became concerned when he got a call from her high school saying she hadn’t reported to class, according to the police reports.
The families said they had no prior problems with the girls.
Deputies closed the missing persons case Monday after they learned the girls had been returned.
A man who answered the door at the sisters’ home in the Denver suburb of Aurora identified himself as a family member but said he had no comment.
The announcement comes one month after 19-year-old Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colorado, pleaded guilty to charges that she conspired to help militants in Syria.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Denver declined to comment on the latest cases. It’s unclear whether the girls will face charges.
Crimes committed by juveniles are treated as acts of “delinquency” in the federal system and are not handled the same way as crimes committed by adults.
Authorities have not said how they think the girls became interested in helping the Islamic State militants. In Conley’s case, she told agents she wanted to marry a suitor she met online who said he was a Tunisian man fighting with the Islamic State in Syria.
Conley said she wanted to use her American military training with the U.S. Army Explorers to fight a holy war overseas, authorities said. If she could not fight with the extremists, she told agents, she would use her training as a nurse’s aide.
Agents, who had been overtly trying to stop Conley, arrested her in April as she boarded a flight she hoped would ultimately get her to Syria. She could face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine when she is sentenced in January.
Foreign fighters from dozens of nations are pouring into the Middle East to join the Islamic State group and other terrorist organizations. U.S. officials are putting new energy into trying to understand what radicalizes people far removed from the fight, and into trying to prod countries to do a better job of keeping them from joining up.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and P. Solomon Banda in Aurora contributed to this report.
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