Commentary: Who bears responsibility for the children of Islamic State?

Commentary: Who bears responsibility for the children of Islamic State?

Dealing with issues of nationality is particularly tricky when it comes to orphans of Islamic State fighters, say Lowy institute's Dr Rodger Shanahan and Jennifer Percival.

SYDNEY: The death of UK 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 Islamic State minors and the role of the home government in safeguarding these citizens to the forefront.

By stripping Begum of her UK citizenship and not immediately repatriating her newborn child, UK 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 now faces increasing calls for the restoration of Shamima 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.


However, US President Donald Trump’s decision to announce US troop withdrawal in December, the instability that this could cause in the camps, and the potential dispersion of terrorist fighters, has focused sudden attention.

READ: Trump's Syria withdrawal - right idea, just wrong time, a commentary

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, Kings College London, put known Australian Islamic State affiliates remaining in Syria at 30 to 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 Khaled Sharrouf’s remaining children and Zehra Duman raise the most interesting points.

Suspected wives and children of Islamic State group fighters exit the village of Baghouz in the
Suspected wives and children of Islamic State group fighters exit the village of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. (Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman)


Khaled Sharrouf and his wife, Tara, died while living in the Islamic State 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 carer to 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 re-assimilation into Australia, should the government facilitate their return.

However, the role of the wife in Islamic State was to raise the lion-cubs to fulfil the role of multi-generational jihad. It is a fair assumption that Zaynab Sharrouf would have fulfilled this role to remain in the caliphate without her parents for as long as she has. 

READ: Islamic State brides and the meaning of citizenship, a commentary

There is also some evidence to suggest that the Sharrouf children have been living in close connection with another Australian Islamic State member, Zehra Duman, known to be an unrepentant Islamic State fighter and best friend of their mother.

The case of Zehra Duman and her children is not so clear-cut. Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison had previously stated in early March he was 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 Zehra 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 Islamic State 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. 

IS fighter Khaled Sharrouf is the first Australian to be stripped of his citizenship under
IS fighter Khaled Sharrouf is the first Australian to be stripped of his citizenship under anti-terrorism laws (Photo: AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN)

It is therefore difficult to determine what other nationality these children may have. It is not even known if any children in accompaniment of Zehra 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 UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid, we may see more Islamic State women claiming that their children are ill to hasten repatriation.

READ: What comes after a US withdrawal from Afghanistan? A commentary


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. Deradicalisation programmes 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. 

Islamic State fighters are duplicitous and would be keen to return with children that have been radicalised and who have no connection to the state they are being repatriated to. Such a lack of connection makes further radicalisation 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. 

Many of the civilians fleeing the last Islamic State group enclave are children from jihadist
Many of the civilians fleeing the last Islamic State group enclave are children from jihadist families, who bear the scars of the ferocious fighting that has raged since December (Photo: AFP/Delil SOULEIMAN)

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 side.

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute. Jennifer Percival is an intern on the West Asia Project at the same institute. This commentary first appeared in Lowy Institute's blog The Interpreter. Read it here.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)