Australia will not risk bringing ISIS families back from Syria, Scott Morrison says

Prime minister responds to plea from ISIS widow trapped with two young children at refugee camp

Women and children evacuated from ISIS-held territory are escorted to a screening area by US-backed forces in eastern Syria on March 6, 2019. AFP
Women and children evacuated from ISIS-held territory are escorted to a screening area by US-backed forces in eastern Syria on March 6, 2019. AFP

Australia's prime minister has said he would not put officials in danger by retrieving extremists from the Middle East after an Australian ISIS widow asked to bring her children home from a Syrian refugee camp.

Scott Morrison's response came after the Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed the woman in one of the refugee camps in northern Syria where she has lived with her toddler son and malnourished 6-month-old daughter since they fled the Syrian village of Baghouz where the ISIS group has been making its last stand.

ABC said the 24-year-old woman refused to confirm her identity and wore a veil during the interview, but it identified her on Thursday as Zehra Duman.

The woman said her daughter needed hospital treatment and she wanted to bring her back to Australia.

"Nobody really cares about us here, and I understand the anger that they have towards a lot of us here," the woman told ABC, referring to the Kurdish authorities' treatment of tens of thousands of her fellow ISIS supporters in the camps.

"But the kids don't need to suffer."

Mr Morrison said Australians who took their families when they went to war zones to fight with ISIS had to take responsibility for their actions.

"The great tragedy of those who went and joined up with terrorists — to support terrorist causes through Daesh and have taken their families into war zones where they're basically fighting against Australia — is they have placed their children in this horrendous position," the prime minister told reporters on Thursday.

"I'm not going to put any Australian at risk to try to extract people from those situations," he said.

Greg Barton, a security expert at Deakin University, said the government could no longer use the excuse of risk for failing to repatriate Australian extremists as Australia rightly did when the extremists were in territory controlled by ISIS fighters.

"Care would need to be taken bringing her back, but it's entirely do-able," Mr Barton said. "We more than most countries can deal with this."

Western countries were reluctant to bring their nationals home from the Middle East since ISIS collapsed because most countries struggled to gather evidence to prove them guilty of an offence, he said.

But Australia got around that burden of evidence in 2014 when a new law made simply being inside ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq a crime punishable by 10 years in prison. The onus is on Australians who visit designated ISIS-held areas to prove they had reasonable excuses.

No one has yet been prosecuted under the law.

Mr Barton said Mr Morrison would not bring the family home before elections due in May because the prime minister thought that would be politically unpopular.

Mr Morrison said any Australian citizen who returned from supporting ISIS would "face the full force of Australian law".

Opposition leader Bill Shorten, who opinion polls suggest will be prime minister after the elections, said his party would work constructively with the government on repatriating Australian children from Syria without "political point-scoring"."We'll work it through. Do you separate kids from their parents? Who's going to look after them?" Mr Shorten said to reporters.

Duman said on social media she gave up her middle-class life in Melbourne, where she was part of a Turkish-Australian family, for the battlefields of Syria in late 2014.

She followed ISIS militant Mahmoud Abdullatif, who had left Melbourne months earlier for Raqqa in Syria.

The couple announced their wedding online in December 2014, with a photograph of her dowry that included an assault rifle.

Duman, who began calling herself Zehra Abdullatif or Umm Abdullatif, said her 23-year-old husband died five weeks after their wedding.

The former private school student became an avid online recruiter for the movement and urged other women to join her.

When asked on Twitter in early 2015 what she missed about Australia, her reply was simple and numeric: "0"

Published: March 14, 2019 12:11 PM


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