The long road home from Syria
In February 2014, Karen Nettleton had been on a holiday in Malaysia with her daughter, Tara, and her five grandchildren when she was met with a surprise. Tara told Karen she wanted to visit the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul – where her favourite Turkish soap opera was filmed – and she was going to take the kids with her. Tara promised they would be back in a few months.
But they never returned.
“I kissed the kids, kissed their faces. Hugged them, kissed them again. Hugged Tara. Kissed her. And walked out. And left them there. But I didn’t know I was saying goodbye to Tara, to Abdullah and to Zarqawi when I did that. If I knew, I don’t know if I would have gone,” Nettleton told the ABC.
Instead of travelling to Topkapi, Tara and the children met up with their father, Khaled Sharrouf, the man who is now Australia’s most recognised terrorist. In 2015, Tara died of intestinal problems at just 31 years old. A few years later, Sharrouf also died, killed in an airstrike along with his two eldest sons. The remaining Nettleton grandchildren were left alone, stranded in the middle of a war zone.
Since then, the Islamic State has collapsed, with thousands of its fighters captured in the group’s violent final throes. In March, the last diehards were cornered in Baghouz, a small farming hamlet on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria. With their last stand broken, more than 5000 Daesh fighters surrendered.
The bulk of these fighters were drawn from the ranks of Syrian and Iraqi nationals, but many were from elsewhere. Researchers from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation found 41,490 people from 80 different countries travelled to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and many brought their families. Among the ranks of foreign Daesh members, the same study found 4761 were women and 4640 were minors.
Australia has always had foreign fighters but the global nature of the problem and the brutality of Daesh was something new. Also new was the willingness of its members to uproot their families. With the collapse of Daesh, somewhere in the region of 63,000 women and children who had lived under the caliphate streamed out of Baghouz between December 2018 and March 2019. From there, they scattered, some ending up in heaving makeshift prison camps in the north of Syria, controlled by Kurdish forces. Others found their way to refugee camps across the region.
The international community now faces a question it has long been dreading: What happens after Daesh?
Australia’s relative isolation renders it somewhat unusual – in that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to return without being recognised by the country’s border security services. However, the government has so far been quiet on its plans for the children of Daesh fighters who are stranded in conflict zones.
There are no precise numbers. At least 40 Australian women are known to have left to join Daesh and about 70 children. In these cases, motives and circumstances are impossible to generalise.
Women who travelled to join Daesh may have been both victims and perpetrators. Contrary to the trope of passive Daesh bride, some actively believed in the cause. Within the Islamic State they filled roles as recruiters, morality police or even fighters. The Aumahat al-Moaminin battalion was a fighting force led by Iraqi women. But there were others who moved simply to keep their family together or were only children themselves when they entered the caliphate.
The impending election has made the government reluctant to act quickly on the issue of Daesh returnees but it’s further complicated by question of complicity – how to draw lines between the willing participants and the others.
There are also logistical hurdles, as Rodger Shanahan of the Lowy Institute explains. For a person to be returned, they first need to speak to an Australian official and, given the fluid nature of Syria and Iraq at present, sending government officials into Kurdish prison camps is not possible. Few are likely to turn up voluntarily as they would face prosecution.
Establishing an individual’s identity also poses a challenge.
“The first thing you have to ask: who are these children?” says Shanahan. “The other one is paternity and maternity – you’re going to have to test the paternity of these children. What happens if their citizenship is determined by a country like Lebanon, where citizenship passes through the father?”
Dr Isaac Kfir of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said efforts by the Australian government to strip people of their citizenship may complicate matters further, particularly for adult returnees. While there are only 12 known cases where this has happened, it raises issues of responsibility and jurisdiction.
“If the individual is an Australian whose passport has been revoked, there are questions as to whether she or he can actually return to Australia as they may not have correct travel documents – you can’t board a flight without travel documents,” he says.
“There are also questions on where they are being held or detained, whether they have already been convicted of a crime and do we have extradition agreement with the country? For example, I am not sure if we have an extradition agreement with Syria or Iraq. Look at the tension that we are having with Turkey over Neil Prakash.”
Although the government has wavered on the question of returning minors, it has been clear in its intention to prosecute their parents as part of a strategy of deterrence, wherever it can be shown they fought for – or gave material aid to – Daesh.
Levi West, a lecturer in terrorism at Canberra’s Australian Graduate School of Policing and Security, said this is due to a deeply held fear that Daesh sympathisers may reoffend. From a national security perspective, the question of “what if?” is always present.
“The simple solution is to go, ‘No, we’re not going to bring anyone back here,’ ” says West. “But you can triage, which is the missing element in the discussion. There is a difference between people who have gone and clearly done terrible things and people who haven’t.
“If children were taken over there at six years of age, they didn’t have a choice in what they were doing. They have parents who made atrocious decisions, but can we really expect [those kids] to live out their days in a refugee camp in Syria somewhere?”
For the most part, Australian criminal law is already equipped to deal with the return of foreign fighters and their families. Jessie Smith, a former criminal defence lawyer and current doctoral student in terrorism law at the University of Cambridge, says that while evidence may be an issue, Australia has a range of offences on the books that cover those who provided support to Islamic State, in one form or another.
“To date, the Australian government’s strong preference has been to prosecute any citizen upon their return home,” says Smith. “This is in step with the call of the United Nations Security Council, which has asked states to co-operate to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and develop and implement prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration strategies.
“The wives of foreign fighters may be caught by these laws, but the children are unlikely to be prosecuted. They are often in Syria without choice or agency and will be too young for criminal responsibility.”
Once home, reintegrating women and children back into the community will require careful thought and planning. Each state and territory already has its own processes in place for helping children who were former child soldiers. These systems, however, may not be designed to handle the complex needs for children of foreign fighters as they lack resources and experience. Among them, New South Wales may be better positioned than others. The state uses dedicated panels to triage cases, which helps differentiate between angry teens with a black-and-white world view and committed extremists. States with smaller populations, which have not yet had to deal with significant numbers of foreign fighters, could struggle.
Deakin University professor Michele Grossman says reintegrating children is possible but it requires a tailored approach and community support – along with a government that takes an active approach.
Success largely comes down to whether children are given a shot at a “normal” life in a community where they feel they are a part of something.
A targeted study by Grossman exploring the role of community support in helping to reintegrate children and women from foreign conflict zones found most participants were understanding and wanted to help, though communities weren’t willing to go it alone, meaning governments had to step up.
While there are no clear answers of what comes next for the Nettleton grandchildren, the strange reality is theirs represents the best possible scenario – clear Australian citizenship and their location known, a loving grandparent prepared to take on guardianship, and the parents who brought them into Daesh long dead. For others, the situation seems almost intractable.
“There’s a long road home for some of these kids,” says Grossman. “The key question is what kind of society do we want to be in relation to that long road? Are we going to be a society that says, ‘We are going to get some kids who have been through some really difficult things, let’s see what we can do to get them back on the road to recovery.’
“Or do we want to be a society that shuts the door on them and says, ‘Too bad. Bad luck for you’?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "The long road home". Subscribe here.