MADRID — Spanish authorities announced the breakup of a ring dedicated to recruiting young women to join the Islamic State extremist group Tuesday, part of a push by European nations to stop citizens from traveling to Syria and Iraq, to reduce the risk of them returning to carry out terror attacks.
Two suspected recruiters were arrested in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla and two suspects accused of spreading Islamic State propaganda online were detained in the northeastern cities of Barcelona and Girona, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
The four were not identified, but the ministry said the suspects arrested in Melilla ''were dedicated to the recruitment of women who, after a process of indoctrination, would end up integrated into this terror group.''
Beside overseeing a sophisticated online recruiting operation, the two held meetings in homes to show potential recruits Islamic State videos. Some of them had started preparations to move to the conflict zones where the terrorist group operates, the ministry said.
Authorities were investigating whether the two arrested in Barcelona and Girona had connections with the alleged Melilla recruiters. One of those arrested had a Facebook page with more than 1,000 followers, with particularly high penetration in parts of Spain identified as high-risk areas for radicalization, the ministry said.
Spain has arrested dozens of suspected jihadi militants and recruiters in recent years, especially in Melilla and Spain's other North African enclave, Ceuta. Officials have said about 80 Spanish citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join groups there and about a dozen have returned. Some have been jailed after coming home. Many more have headed to the countries from other European nations such as France.
Meanwhile, police investigating the disappearance of three British schoolgirls said Tuesday they believe the teenagers are no longer in Turkey and have crossed into Syria.
The girls, age 15 to 16, disappeared from their London homes on Feb. 17 and boarded a flight to Istanbul in Turkey. Authorities believe the girls could be on their way to join the Islamic State group.
The case underlines fears that growing numbers of young women in Britain and Europe are lured by online propaganda to join extremists and become ''jihadi brides.''
Security officials say at least 500 Britons have traveled to Syria to fight with extremists, often via Turkey. Specialists estimate about 50 are female.
The three girls in the latest case have been described as ''straight-A students'' from a highly regarded London school. The families of Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, have implored them to return home.
''They appear to have been induced to join a terrorist group that carries out the most hideous violence and believes girls should be married at 9 and women should not leave the home,'' Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday.
As officials continued searching for the teenagers, a top Turkish official complained that British officials waited three days before seeking help in the case, losing valuable time.
Turkey's deputy prime minister said the girls arrived in Istanbul as tourists, and British authorities did not share enough information for Turkey to act quickly.
''It is a condemnable act, a shameful act that a country like Britain . . . did not follow [the girls] closely,'' Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara, the capital. ''They woke up three days after the fact to notify us.''
''We don't have a mechanism that allows us to question or read the minds of tourists,'' he added.