The following is a text message received by Australian grandmother Karen Nettleton from her 14-year-old granddaughter Zaynab, a child bride whose husband was killed fighting for a terrorist organisation in Syria:
“Hello Nana, how are you? My husband got hit by a drone yesterday and got killed… When I found out, I was happy for him to get what he wanted and go to paradise but at the same time I was devastated because I loved him so much and I knew I was never gonna see him again in this life.”
Zaynab also recently posted on Twitter that she is pregnant. Still in Syria with four younger siblings and her mother, the group are now at the centre of a controversial discussion over whether they should be allowed to return to Australia.
Zaynab’s husband was Mohamed Elomar, the infamous Australian who fought for Islamic State. Zaynab’s father, Khaled Sharrouf, is reported to also have been killed in the same air strike that killed Elomar, although this has not been confirmed.
Meanwhile, Karen is pleading for her daughter Tara Nettleton, and her grandchildren, to be allowed to return to Australia.
Journey to Syria
The children left Australia in 2014, with Karen, Tara and the five children, then aged 12, 11, 8, 7 and 2.
They first went to Malaysia for a holiday, and although Karen returned home to Australia, Tara and her children continued on to Syria. Tara’s husband, Sharrouf, was already there waiting, having left Australian on his brother’s passport.
He was previously convicted of terrorist offences in 2005, and was charged with possessing an unauthorised firearm.
Last year, Australia was shocked when one of his sons was photographed and shared on IS social media holding the head of a dead soldier.
Return to Australia
Apart from the controversy about whether the family should be allowed re-entry, there are logistical obstacles and dangers they could face in attempting to return.
Assistant Commissioner of the AFP Neil Gaugan says that because Syria is a war zone, and there is no-one to reach the family, it would be extremely difficult for Australia to extract them from their location.
There is also the danger that Islamic State will locate and execute them for wanting to return.
What happens to suspected terrorists who return to Australia?
Several recent laws have dramatically expanded the scope of terrorism offences in Australia, prescribing harsh penalties for returning foreign fighters.
Clause 119.2 of Schedule 1 of the Counter Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014 makes it a crime to simply be in certain geographical regions, called ‘declared areas’, without a reasonable excuse. The maximum penalty is 10 years imprisonment.
Actually fighting with a terrorist organisation such as Islamic State comes with a maximum penalty of 25 years imprisonment. The mother, Tara Nettleton, has been photographed firing guns in Syria, which would likely be used as evidence to support a prosecution for this offence.
And legislation is now going through parliament which would allow the government to revoke the citizenship of suspected terrorists. The proposed laws currently apply to dual nationals, even if they were born in Australia.
But Tara is not a dual citizen – solely an Australian citizen.
What will happen to the children?
There is a high likelihood that Tara Nettleton will face prosecution if she returns to Australia, but the fate of her children is less certain.
After all, why should young children be blamed for the actions of their parents? On the other hand, some are against the children coming back, believing that they may be a future threat to Australian society.
It has even been suggested that Sharrouf’s death was a ploy orchestrated in order to allow his family to return to Australia. Indeed, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julia Bishop says that the government is still trying to verify the reports of his death.
Some might expect that the impact of living in a warzone would psychologically affect the children. Child psychologist Heather Rundle told news.com.au that in order to be rehabilitated, the children would need a huge amount of support, and warned that labeling them as ‘the enemy’ would significantly harm their chances of identifying with Australians.
She believes it is likely that the children are already suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten have both expressed sympathy for the plight of the children, with Shorten likening the behaviour of the parents to child abuse.
But charges against the children haven’t been ruled out. Tony Abbott was quoted as saying:
“If a minor commits a crime, again there are standard provisions for dealing with that. Criminals will be punished whether they’re young, whether they’re old, whether they’re male, whether they’re female, whether they’re criminals abroad or criminals at home.”
Some MPs have suggested putting the children into care, and Liberal backbencher Alex Hawke expressed the view that parents who treat their children in that way deserved to be immediately disqualified from their rights of parenthood.
Karen is pleading for the return of her family, and has appealed to the Prime Minister via the media, stating:
“My daughter made a mistake of a lifetime. Today she is a parent alone in a foreign and vicious land looking after a widowed 14-year-old and four other young children.”