Can the Children of the ISIS Caliphate Ever Come Home?
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.
The death of U.K. teenager Shamima Begum’s newborn son and the recent video of an Australian woman in Syria calling to be returned home with her sick infant daughter has brought the issue of ISIS minors and the role of the home government in safeguarding these citizens to the forefront.
For stripping Begum of her U.K. citizenship and not immediately repatriating her newborn child, U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid has been accused of moral cowardice, of being callous and inhumane, and of being swayed by populism, by religious leaders, opposition politicians, and members of his own party. He is now facing increasing calls for the restoration of Begum’s citizenship. In turn, Javid has stated during questions in the House of Commons that:
The death of any British child, even those children born to a foreign terrorist fighter, of course is a tragedy. But the only person responsible for the death of that child is the foreign terrorist fighter.
Until now, little has been done to repatriate minors. Previously, it was felt that there was no urgency to deal with this issue; they were mostly being held in camps in Northern Syria either with a remaining parent or family member, detained in Iraq or residing in what was left of the so-called caliphate.
Out of sight, out of mind.
However, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to announce U.S. troop withdrawal in December, the instability that this could cause in the camps, and the potential dispersion of terrorist fighters, has focused sudden attention. In an attempt to trace the women and children of the caliphate, a 2018 report released by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, put known Australian ISIS affiliates remaining in Syria at 30–40 female and 70 minors. It is not a large number, but little is known about many of them. Of those that are known, the case of Khalid Sharrouf’s remaining children and Zehra Duman raise the most interesting points.
By examining only two cases, it becomes apparent that there will be no comforting blanket government policy of “bringing the children home” if it is not possible to determine their nationality.
Khalid Sharrouf and his wife, Tara, died while living in the ISIS caliphate, as did two of their three sons. Although he was the first citizen to be stripped of Australian citizenship in 2015, at the time of leaving Australia for the caliphate, both parents were Australian citizens. Their children were all born in Australia; their citizenship is not in question. The eldest child, Zaynab, subsequently married a 31-year-old Australian man, Mohamed Elomar, and bore two children. Elomar died, leaving Zaynab as “orphan, widow, and mother” and caretaker for her two, remaining, younger siblings. Karen Nettleton, the maternal grandmother to the children, has repeatedly stated that she would support her grandchildren, and her now great-grandchildren, in their reassimilation into Australia, should the government facilitate their return.
However, as outlined in Roger Shanahan’s previous article (“Behind every mujahid there is a mujahidi“) the role of the wife in ISIS was to raise the lion-cubs to fulfill the role of multi-generational jihad. It is a fair assumption that Zaynab Sharrouf will have fulfilled this role to remain in the caliphate without her parents for as long as she has. There is also some evidence to suggest that the Sharrouf children have been living in close connection with Duman, another Australian ISIS member, known to be an unrepentant fighter and best friend of their mother.
The case of Duman and her children is not so clear-cut. Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated on March 6 that he is considering the removal of her citizenship, as she holds dual Australian and Turkish citizenship; at this time we do not know if this has, indeed, happened. In light of the new video of the Australian woman in Syria, widely believed to be Duman, the prime minister reiterated his position that there will be no Australian assistance in her repatriation or that of her children.
Although Duman initially married an Australian ISIS fighter, it is unlikely that her children are a product of this marriage as he was killed five weeks after their union. She did remarry, but it is uncertain if the children are from this marriage. It is therefore difficult to determine what other nationality these children may have. It is not even known if any children in accompaniment of Duman are actually hers. It may be assumed that many of the orphans of the caliphate have been unofficially adopted by other members. This would require DNA testing to determine familial connection and hence state responsibility. In light of the criticisms being faced by Javid, we may see more ISIS women claiming that their children are ill to hasten repatriation.
The Sharrouf children should be allowed to return. They are confirmed citizens of Australia and they are all minors. Do they pose a security risk? Potentially. That must be assessed on their return and dealt with according to local and international law. The Duman children require a different approach; parental connection through DNA testing needs to be established prior to any thought of repatriation. Deradicalization programs will need to be developed to deal with children such as these.
By examining only two cases, it becomes apparent that there will be no comforting blanket government policy of “bringing the children home” if we cannot determine their nationality. ISIS fighters are duplicitous and would be keen to return with children that have been radicalized and who have no connection to the state they are being repatriated to. Such a lack of connection makes further radicalization easier to achieve.
Repatriating minors is not without its complications and risks. The identity of these minors, and thus their nationality, cannot always be determined. Birth certificates may be held on file by their home governments, but for those born within the caliphate, it is not so easy to determine, especially if they have been orphaned. As highlighted, DNA testing to establish a child’s antecedents is the first option to establish their citizenship, only then can a government decide what to do about repatriation of these children, with or without their mothers. However, this could be a lengthy and expensive process and time is not on their, or our, side.
Jennifer Percival is an intern on the West Asia Project at the Lowy Institute. She holds a MA(Hons) Modern History from the University of St. Andrews and a Master of International Security from the University of Sydney. Prior to moving to Australia from the UK, Jennifer was a Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force. She served in various locations in the UK and Europe and gained operation experience serving in Kuwait in 2003. She was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Operational Honours List of 2003.
Dr. Rodger Shanahan is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute. A former army officer, he had extensive service within the Parachute Battalion Group (PBG) and has had operational service with the UN in South Lebanon and Syria, with the PBG in East Timor, in Beirut during the 2006 war, and in Afghanistan. He was the former director of the Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre, and has also been posted to the Australian Embassies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Dr Shanahan has MAs in International Relations and Middle East Studies from the ANU, and a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Sydney.