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Sharpen up over Syria sisters - Vaz

Published 22/06/2015

Khadija Dawood is one of three sisters feared to have travelled to Syria
Khadija Dawood is one of three sisters feared to have travelled to Syria

The UK needs to "sharpen up our act" when it comes to contacting Turkish authorities, Keith Vaz has said after meeting the "heartbroken" husbands of two of the three sisters feared to have travelled to Syria with their nine children.

British sisters Khadija Dawood, 30, Sugra Dawood, 34, and Zohra Dawood, 33, and their children, aged between three and 15, are feared to have travelled to link up with terror group Islamic State (IS).

Mr Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, described it as a "terrible case" and said authorities need to stop sending emails and instead "pick up a phone" in these "life-and-death situations".

The husbands of two of the three sisters met Mr Vaz after their lawyers said police were "complicit in the grooming and radicalising" of the women.

Last week, Akhtar Iqbal and Mohammed Shoaib broke down as they pleaded desperately for their wives to return so they could go back to their "normal lives".

After today's meeting in Westminster which lasted an hour and 15 minutes, Mr Vaz said: "They are clearly heartbroken."

He said he is meeting police tomorrow to discuss the case.

"I think three things need to be done. First of all there needs to be clear lines of communication between the police and the families. They need to meet at a very senior level with the police to try and get as much information as possible - information that can be shared with the family, that isn't operational.

"Secondly, it is very clear that we have four missing days from the family arriving in Istanbul and then crossing the border between Turkey and Syria.

"And I still think we need to sharpen up our act as far as contacting the Turkish authorities are concerned. Turkey has always been very responsive but there's still this desire to send emails. Well, you know, you can't.

"We are dealing now with life-and-death situations where you have to pick up a phone, a hotline, between the United Kingdom and Istanbul and tell the authorities that people are missing, get photographs to them as soon as possible, because this repeats a pattern that we've seen before with Bethnal Green and the three young girls there, which was not followed in Brent for the three young men because people acted very quickly, and they made phone calls instead of sending emails and therefore they were able to apprehend the three boys before they even landed in Istanbul.

"That's the kind of urgent quick action that we need.

"And finally, I think what we also need to do is to make sure that communities realise they should be in the driving seat on these issues.

"It can't be done by Whitehall. It's got to be done by parents and communities. They are first and foremost responsible for watching and learning and listening to whatever is going on.

"The final point about the criticisms concerning the way in which the police have dealt with this - the allegations of radicalisation. These will need to be examined and I am meeting the police tomorrow.

"Of course they deny that this was the case. But I think this is something that needs to be cleared up between the family and police so that they're reassured that this never happened."

Yesterday, the men's lawyers - Bradford-based Khan Solicitors - wrote to Mr Vaz setting out criticisms from the two men about police actions.

They said their clients are "extremely disappointed with the manner in which this matter is being investigated by West Yorkshire Police and have expressed grave concerns in the conduct of the police leading to these events".

Referring to a brother of the sisters, who is believed to have joined IS, the letter said: "Indeed, we are alarmed by the fact that the police have been actively promoting and encouraging contact with the brother-in-law of our client whom, it is believed, is fighting in Syria.

"It would appear that there has been a reckless disregard as to the consequences of any such contact on the families of those whom we represent."

The solicitors explained how their clients have not had the information they want about the progress of the investigation and accused the police of making sure they are not criticised for their tactic of "allowing, encouraging and promoting contact with somebody believed to be in Syria".

The letter said: "The actions and misjudgment of the Nectu (North East Counter Terror Unit) has placed the lives of 12 British citizens at risk, nine of which are innocent children, the youngest being three years of age."

The letter also confirmed that Zohra Dawood left a voice message for her family on Wednesday indicating she was already in Syria and that all the missing people had travelled there together "due to the oppressive nature of the continued surveillance by the police".

It said the police released this information last week without any consultation with the fathers and that senior officers have refused to meet the two men.

The solicitors asked Mr Vaz if he could intervene.

Mr Vaz said cases like this require "instant decisions" and phone calls should be made rather than sending emails.

"We are at war with Isil now. There's no doubt about this. This is a battle for the hearts and minds of British citizens and we need to pick up phones and make instant decisions and pass on information quickly," he said.

Asked if police missed opportunities in this case, Mr Vaz said: "It's the system. It's not one particular agency. The system isn't robust enough.

"And I know from my visit to Istanbul only last weekend that the security from the police and the border force has increased hugely since I last looked at this.

"But I do think that we need to make sure our consulate is opened up for all hours and somebody needs to be there to take these calls.

"It's not an excuse to tell people that it's a weekend. We are really in a real battle here and we need to be absolutely firm in dealing with it."

The missing group travelled to Saudi Arabia on May 28 to go on an Islamic pilgrimage.

They were due to return to the UK on June 11, but broke off all contact with family in Britain two days earlier on June 9.

It is believed they boarded a flight to Turkey that day and now have crossed into Syria.

It later emerged that the same group tried to fly earlier this year. The BBC reported that the sisters and their children, from Bradford, were originally booked to travel from Manchester to Mecca and Medina on March 19.

The Nectu confirmed that the same group had been stopped and made the subject of security checks earlier this year.

Mr Iqbal and Mr Shoaib broke down in tears as they pleaded with their wives to come home at a press conference organised by the family last week.

Mr Iqbal's wife Sugra has gone away with his five children - Ismaeel, three, Mariya, five, Zaynab, eight, Ibrahim, 14, and 15-year-old Junaid Ahmed.

Mr Shoaib's wife Khadija has disappeared with his two children - five-year-old Muhammad Haseeb and Maryam Siddiqui, seven.

Zohra's husband is not currently living in the UK.

West Yorkshire assistant chief constable Russ Foster said yesterday: "We have not seen the letter so cannot comment in detail on its contents. However, we completely reject accusations that the police were complicit in the alleged grooming of the missing family or that we were oppressive to them.

"While we do not comment on all aspects of police work for valid operational and safeguarding reasons, this is an ongoing investigation and we are continuing to do everything we can to find the missing family and to ensure the safety of the children.

"Their relatives have been kept informed throughout this investigation and we are pleased they expressed their satisfaction with the support they have received so far. This will continue."

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