STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's learn more now about three teenage girls from Denver who tried to fly to Syria. They were recruited by the terrorist group known as ISIS, or the Islamic State. The group lured the girls over social media - a tactic the group is using to draw fighters from around the world.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston went to Denver to find out exactly how three seemingly ordinary girls from the Muslim community ended up heading for a war zone. She's going to have three stories on the case. This morning, we start with the way that a father discovered his daughter was missing - also his desperate attempts to get her back.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: I'm standing outside an apartment complex in Aurora, Colorado. And officials say the story of the three schoolgirls who left Colorado to go and live with ISIS fighters in Syria begins here, in an upstairs apartment bedroom with a computer and a Twitter account. And it was also from that house that a phone call from a frightened father was made to a man who lived across town.
REPRESENTATIVE DANIEL KAGAN: I got a phone call on a Friday early evening from an acquaintance of mine who I've known for some two or three years.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's State Representative Daniel Kagan. His district includes the southern Denver suburbs.
KAGAN: He told me something very worrying, which was that he believed his daughter had absconded and had possibly run away to Syria to join ISIS.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Kagan spoke dozens of times that Friday night with the father. His version of these events has been confirmed by both police reports and people close to the case.
KAGAN: He told me that his daughter had not shown up at school. The father then talked to this girl's brother, who said, no, no, no, dad. She is not at school. I'm at school. She's not. She's gone. And he got really worried.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Her father went to her computer to look for clues.
KAGAN: He found some tweets and emails that suggested that this was a plan she had hatched along with two other girls to go and join jihad.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The other girls were two friends from high school. They were sisters of Somali descent - ages 15 and 17. It is NPR's policy not to reveal the names of minors accused of or involved with crimes. What we can say is that the decision of the three Denver teenagers to join ISIS came as a shock - certainly to the father.
KAGAN: He had no idea. This came out of the blue to him. He didn't know that they'd been in correspondence with these Internet-luring recruiters.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS had recruited three teenagers using social media. And their parents - even the whole community - felt defenseless. So leaders in the community asked if there was someone who would explain Facebook and Twitter and the online world. That's how Stacey Hervey got involved. I went to see her.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, guys.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi. We're here to visit Stacey.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, lucky you.
TEMPLE-RASTON: She teaches crime and forensics at a magnet school in the Denver public school system.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So if you go straight up the stairs right behind me and down this hallway, her classroom is on the right.
STACEY HERVEY: Hi. How are you?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Very well. I'm Dina. Hervey told me about the town hall meeting with Muslim leaders last month. She told the audience about tweeting and a social networking app called YikYak and more. And then she focused on something called AskFM. AskFM is important to this story because according to three people close to the Denver case, it was the app that helped the girls connect to ISIS.
HERVEY: AskFM allows you to post anonymously, and then AskFM will post that comment to Facebook or Twitter without your name.
TEMPLE-RASTON: A spokesman for AskFM told NPR that the company was aware of the case. She said the company is looking at ways to make the app safer. Because people can use it anonymously, ISIS discovered that it was a great place to find vulnerable teenagers. Half a dozen people close to the case say the girls started in April by posting a simple query on AskFM. Would it be considered enough of a religious sacrifice to go to Syria simply to live and pray, but not to fight? People who claimed to be members of ISIS quickly responded. Stacey Hervey said it sounded like the group was using tactics traditional online predators have employed for years.
HERVEY: Every teenager can have a bad day. And these groups are looking for that opportune moment to kind of weasel their way into their lives. And at that point, they've made that connection. They're going to keep trying to navigate through that world to find that kid's weaknesses or what they need for validation.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Over the course of six months, the girls exchanged 9,000 messages with suspected ISIS members in Europe, Syria and Iraq. Most of the exchanges were with two fighters. They developed a relationship, and the girls eventually agreed to come to Syria. Just before they left, an ISIS facilitator appeared online and operated as a virtual travel agent. He told them what they should say at passport control in Turkey, which bus to take to the Syrian border, and then provided a phone number to call so someone could pick them up. By noon on October 17, they had taken their first steps. They had passports, money and a plan. Their parents only had a few hours to find them.
KAGAN: He called me back.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Colorado Representative Daniel Kagan picks up the story.
KAGAN: And said, look, I now know. I've been in touch with the taxi driver who apparently took my daughter to DIA.
TEMPLE-RASTON: DIA is Denver International Airport.
KAGAN: He has told me what time my daughter left. He's told me what gate he dropped her off at. I know that she was on the phone to Lufthansa. I know that my daughter's passport is gone, that $2,000 in cash is gone.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And more than six hours were gone, too. The Sudanese father called the FBI tip line. He called the Aurora police. Late in the evening, Kagan called the head of the FBI's Denver field office. Fifteen minutes later, he said, law enforcement officials were knocking on his friend's door, telling him that they would help him find his daughter. But by then, the girls were already in the air.
KAGAN: They went apparently Denver, Chicago, JFK, Frankfurt.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Frankfurt flight was continuing on to Turkey. They had to be stopped before that last flight departed. And somehow they were. Authorities flagged the girls' passports. German authorities stopped them in Frankfurt. The girls are back home now. They were put on the next plane back to Denver. The girls are minors, so the government is unlikely to press charges. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.