CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The eldest of three orphaned Australian siblings pleading for repatriation from a Syrian refugee camp has been an Islamic State group propagandist who could potentially face terrorism charges at home, a security analyst said Wednesday.
Zaynab Sharrouf was taken from Sydney to Syria at the age of 13 in 2014 by her extremist parents and became both a victim and supporter of terrorism in a case that was legally and morally complex, Australian National University counterterrorism researcher Jacinta Carroll wrote in a research paper.
The Australian government has said it is working with the Red Cross to repatriate 17-year-old Zaynab, her two children — Ayesha, 3, and Fatima, 2 — her 16-year-old sister, and her 8-year-old brother from the al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria.
The three siblings are the children of Sydney-born Islamic State group fighter and convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf, who was killed in a 2017 air strike near Raqqa, at the time the Islamic State group’s stronghold in Syria, along with his two eldest sons, Abdullah, 12, and Zarqawi, 11.
Carroll said Zaynab became a prominent Islamic State group propagandist making social media posts supporting atrocities and the activities of her father and her husband Mohamed Elomar, an Australian Islamic State fighter who was killed while she was pregnant in 2015.
She had lived a relatively privileged life under the Islamic State regime in Syria in a house with slaves, posting photographs of herself with other veiled women with assault rifles and a luxury BMW sedan. She boasted a “luxury jihad” life in Syria, Carroll said.
While children as young as 14 can be charged under Australian terrorism laws, Carroll said there would be public support for Zaynab undergoing a deradicalization program, also known as disengagement, in Australia since going to Syria had not been her decision.
“Technically she could be prosecuted. I think there would be, talking to government officials, a lot of sympathy for trying to assist her disengaging should she choose to come to Australia,” Carroll said.
The Sydney grandmother of Sharrouf’s children, Karen Nettleton, has expressed frustration at the delay in returning them to Australia since they reached the camp in mid-March.
Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported in April that Zaynab was heavily pregnant and feared giving birth in a tent. There have been no further reports on her pregnancy.
“We weren’t the ones that chose to come here in the first place. We were brought here by our parents, and now that our parents have gone … I want to live a normal life,” Zaynab told ABC at the time.
Family lawyer Robert Van Aalst did not return calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office on Wednesday reiterated his April statement that the government would continue to work behind the scenes to bring the children home.
The siblings’ father in 2017 became the first dual national to be stripped of Australian citizenship for actions contrary to his allegiance to Australia.
Sharrouf slipped out of Australia in 2013 using his brother’s passport because his own had been canceled due to a conviction over a thwarted attack plot in Australia. He was left with Lebanese citizenship.
Sharrouf horrified the world in 2014 when he posted a photograph on social media of his young son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described that image as “one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed.”
Sharrouf’s wife, Tara Nettleton, brought their five children to Syria in 2014. She died in a hospital a year later of a perforated intestine.
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