Minister of State Security David Mahlobo has confirmed that she was taken off a British Airways flight late on Sunday afternoon, and that she has admitted that she was planning to join IS. “We can confirm that she was leaving the country with the intention of joining IS, and she had been actively engaged with social media networks. Her parents have also confirmed she was using Twitter,” Mahlobo said.
The girl, who will not be named in order to protect her identity, was found seated alone in business class and had disappeared nine hours earlier. When her grandparents called her for breakfast at 8am on Sunday morning, they realised that she had disappeared, and after breaking down her bedroom door saw she had escaped through the window.
Police and the Minister of State Security were notified of her disappearance, and the hunt to locate her began. “We alerted officials at all airports immediately, and had we not been notified in time, she would have left the country. I have spoken to both her father and grandfather and they are relieved that she has been found,” Mahlobo said. After being debriefed by State Security, the girl has been released back into the care of her family.
Evidence found in her bedroom suggested that she had transferred money to an unknown source, and other clues written on her school books suggested to her family that she had been in contact with IS recruiters. Her parents have been on holiday in Durban and are due back in Cape Town on Monday as they were unable to get a flight on Sunday.
A neighbour confirmed that the girl had recently mentioned to his daughter that she was considering joining IS. She had become increasingly politicised over the past month, according to the neighbour.
“An investigation is underway as to how far this network goes, whether there is a cell in the country, and what the methods of recruiting and funding are. We cannot allow South Africa to be used as a recruitment space.” Minister Mahlobo said.
IS has been pursuing a strategy of recruiting young female teenagers from around the world to join their ranks in Syria and Iraq through an online campaign. Female IS recruiters use social media forums such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Ask.fm.
The South African girl’s attempted recruitment follows on the heels of Sharmeena Begum, the British 15-year-old girl who was lured by IS propaganda to go to Syria in December 2014.
Begum was the first of four teenage school friends who were recruited to join IS, and is believed to be in the IS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. Extremists had contacted Begum by cellphone knowing she was vulnerable after her mother’s death from cancer and her father remarrying. On the same day as Sharmeena left, another teenager from East London was taken off a British Airways plane before the flight left for Turkey.
In early March 2015, two Australian teenage brothers were stopped by airport security in Sydney as they attempted to join IS. Another 18 year old Australian teenager Jake Bilardi was successfully recruited by IS following the death of his mother, and he recently died in a suicide attack in Iraq.
It is unclear whether the South African girl was heading to Turkey, which is the preferred route for recruits who are then taken by road across Turkey to the border with Syria. In order to counter the aggressive recruitment of youngsters by IS, “a lot of work has to be done,” admitted Minister Mahlobo.