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AURORA - A Colorado father has broken his silence, more than a year after his teenage daughter and two friends boarded a plane to the middle east intending to join ISIS.
In an exclusive interview with Denver7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski, the father said he learned the terrorist organization recruited his then-15-year-old daughter and two of her friends on social media for more than a year before they boarded a plane from Denver International Airport bound for Turkey. The father reported their plan to the FBI and law enforcement intercepted the trio on a layover in Germany.
"This is my little daughter going to join ISIS," the father told Kovaleski. "That's just the worst thing you can think about."
The father, who did not want to reveal his name or show his face on camera, agreed to tell his story because he wanted other parents to know how aggressively the terrorist organization is working to recruit young people, especially women, to join its cause.
"Were there any red flags, any warning signs?" Kovaleski asked. "No, no. We have a very normal life. My daughter is loved by the whole family... she's just like any teenager," the father said. "Social media makes it easy for ISIS to get to our kids."
The father, whose family is of Muslim faith, describes himself as an active and engaged parent who has a close relationship with his daughter. But said he had no idea ISIS was communicating with his daughter and two of her friends on social media for more than a year.
"Does this rattle your confidence, knowing you're an active parent and knowing your daughter hid this from you for a year?" Kovaleski asked. "It's just unbelievable," The father replied. "It came out of nowhere."
This father's story might have taken an even more tragic turn if he did not jump into action the day his daughter disappeared in October 2014. He said he realized something was wrong when his daughter did not get off the school bus that Friday afternoon. She did not answer his phone calls, and the father soon discovered her passport was missing.
"Something horrible happened, because I knew my daughter would never do that," the father said.
He told Denver7 he drove to his daughter's school and, from the parking lot, put together the pieces of a terrible puzzle. His son called after seeing a tweet from his daughter's account stating, "Make du'a for me."
"That means she asked people to ask God to help her with what she is going to do," the father said.
He looked up his daughter's cell phone activity online and discovered she made two concerning calls that day: one to Lufthansa Airlines, and one to a cab driver. The father called the driver, who confirmed he dropped off the three teenage girls at the departures curb at DIA.
The father remembers having an emotional breakdown in the school parking lot. "To be honest, I just cried. I don't remember the last time I cried, but on that day, I cried a lot."
"You put the pieces together and all of a sudden you realize your teenage daughter is on her way to join ISIS," Kovaleski said.
The father said he called Lufthansa hours before the girls were set to depart to Turkey, but the airline refused to confirm whether the girls had purchased tickets or whether they had boarded the plane. (The family is now suing Lufthansa, claiming the airline could have intervened and prevented the situation from escalating to an international incident. The airline would not comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.)
"My heart just dropped, because I knew if she got there and crossed into Syria, nobody would be able to get her back and she would have a horrible future," he said.
Knowing he needed to work quickly, the father said he called the FBI. Agents arranged an intervention, and law enforcement in Frankfurt, Germany detained the three girls when their flight landed for a layover. Authorities returned the girls to the United States and opted not to press charges because the girls were juveniles.
The father said he remembers the moment his daughter stepped off the plane and returned to the United States. He remembers balancing anger over his daughter's actions with the sheer relief of knowing she was safe.
"Part of me feels really happy and joyful because she's back from a place that nobody comes back from," he said. "She realizes she was about to make a big mistake that would have cost her her life."
After the three girls returned, the father learned the methods ISIS used to trick his daughter and her friends on social media.
"ISIS plays on Muslims' emotions," he said. "They play on the [idea] that you are living in a country where people are going to go to hell. Your parents, since they are living there, they are the same like these other people, even if your parents are Muslim. And you need to save yourself. How am I going to save myself? You need to come over here .. live under Islamic rule. We're going to give you a house, you're going to get married. You're going to get to have nice kids, have a nice life ... and it's a noble cause. But all that's wrong. All that's wrong. There is no safe place there. People are all on the run. There's always fighting going on somewhere. There's no houses, there's no nice life. There are just a bunch of terrorists. And for these females to get there, they're just going to get raped, get killed."
The father learned ISIS recruiters offered his daughter and her friends specific advice for how to escape the country.
"They told them how to do it. How to get from home, how to get to the airport, how even to get the money," he said. "I believe they have a plan, especially [for] minors, to escape their families... I believe they taught them this plan: how to get to the airport, how to do this, how to do that, how to answer questions if you are being asked."
The father said he agreed to speak to Denver7 Investigates because he wants parents to know the warning signs.
"Every parent should not think, 'I'm safe and this is never going to happen to me.' That's wrong. If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody else, because I consider myself a good parent. I consider myself involved in my kids' lives. And that happened to me. And honestly, I want people to think it can happen to them. I want people to think about their kids, their activity on the internet, their friends, all their kid's life. They should get more involved and think more about their kids and just get close to them, and answer their questions. Especially for Muslim people, if your kids have questions like 'Why do we live over here? We should go there,' you should have a good answer for that."
"ISIS recruiters might see this story on the internet. What would you say to those recruiters who are watching right now?" Kovaleski asked.
"These are bad people. I would tell them your are bad people. You are snatching kids from their families. You promise these kids false promises," the father said. "You are just like any other criminal. You are kidnappers. You are luring these kids to die or get raped or get killed. You are bad people, criminals, and you are not true Muslims. True Muslims would not do that to other peoples' kids. A true Muslim would never ever lure a girl from her house to leave her family."