DENVER — Three teens became radicalized online and chatted with an ISIS recruiter for a year before their attempted flight to Syria earlier this month, according to an analysis by terror experts.
The two Somali sisters and a Sudanese friend took their passports and $2,000 on Oct. 17 and flew from Denver to Frankfurt before the authorities caught up with them and sent them back home to their frightened parents.
Two weeks later, some of their classmates and fellow Somalis remain stunned by the drama that has brought an uncomfortable light on the small immigrant community. "I was shocked and scared at the same time," 14-year-old Nimo Yousuf, who attends the same high school as the three girls, told NBC News. "I didn’t know what happened to them. I thought they were lost from home."
Her brother Liban, a senior at the same high school, was also startled. "You see stuff like this on the news and you go 'Ah, that’s in another place' and you’re shocked because it’s where I live."
This week, the SITE Intelligence Group issued a report indicating the social media accounts of the three girls showed radical leanings as well as a shift toward extremism. "The Internet played an important role in their radicalization process," Rita Katz, director and co-founder of SITE told the Denver Post. "For a 15-year-old girl to have 9,000 tweets means they are constantly online. When you see these numbers, you understand these girls lived their lives on social media."
In a gathering at a local Somali community center, the young people who spoke to NBC News said it's easy for kids to be lured online. "I think you can look at their name," Liban, 17, said. "Look at their profile picture. I mean if you see a black teen wearing a scarf and there it is. You could talk to them."
For some, it doesn't take long from there to get brainwashed. "It's always easy to get in kids' minds," Liban said. "They are innocent. They don’t know what’s right from wrong so you know you could tell them come do this. This is the right way and it would be easier for them to listen. I think it could happen anywhere, anywhere with kids."
Nimo, who says she is on social media all day added that "some teens don't think of consequences. They just think of now."
Denver’s Somalis say more resources are needed to keep young people on track. They also add that parents, teachers and religious leaders must be vigilant so kids won’t be recruited down paths that could be dangerous to themselves and others.
"It has to do with community," says Mahad Warsane, a 20-year-old college sophomore. "Our community is fairly new and their decisions affect us and we need to have programs and activities to prevent them from being radicalized and leaving and taking their lives and maybe even taking others."
The teens' flight attempt has been a wake-up call. "One of the things that makes it scary is that if it’s so easy for two or three little girls to go and almost get to wherever they're headed than this could happen again and again," said Mahad. "We have to focus on how to prevent it."