Australia’s first so-called jihadi bride is believed to have emerged from Islamic State’s last stronghold, and says the children of Australia’s most notorious terrorist are alive but stranded in IS territory.
The ABC has obtained exclusive footage showing a woman believed to be Zehra Duman with other women and children fleeing Baghuz – the last sliver of land still controlled by Islamic State.
The video, filmed late last week by American humanitarian worker David Eubank, shows a young woman among women and children.
Wearing a niqab – conservative Islamic women’s dress that covers everything but the eyes – the woman corrects Mr Eubanks when he says her name: “You’re Zahra?”
In an Australian accent, she replies: “Zehra.”
She then tells Mr Eubanks that she was the “best friend” of Tara Nettleton, the wife of Australia’s most notorious terrorist, Khaled Sharrouf, who published a photo of his nine-year-old son holding a severed head in Raqqa.
Ms Nettleton died of health complications in 2015 and Sharrouf and his two eldest children, Abdullah and Zarqawi, died in an air strike in 2017.
The couple’s three remaining children – Zaynab, 17; Hoda, 16; and Hamzah, 9 – were left stranded in Syria and there has been ongoing speculation about their location.
Ms Duman revealed the children remain stranded in Baghuz at the centre of the final offensive against the Islamic State group in Syria.
“They’re fine and they’re alive … I don’t know if they’re going to leave or not. I haven’t kept in contact with them so I don’t know,” she said.
Ms Duman, 25, left Melbourne for Syria in late 2014.
She moved to the IS Syrian capital of Raqqa and married fellow Melburnian Mahmoud Abdullatif, who was fighting for Islamic State forces. He was slain five weeks after they were wed.
Ms Duman has been a vocal supporter of the IS group’s violent rhetoric on social media as well as an effective recruiter – she allegedly assisted fellow Australian and mother of two Jasmina Milovanov to travel to Syria in May 2015.
However, after the main Twitter account believed to be operated by Ms Duman was suspended in 2015, she disappeared from public view.
Ms Duman’s online presence has been a thorn in the side of the Australian government, which was trying to prevent a steady stream of young Australian Muslims from going to Syria.
In 2015 Ms Duman, calling herself Umm Abdullatif Australi, posted a picture of a woman wearing a niqab and an army jacket and with an automatic rifle in her hands with the caption: “catch me if you can”.
The same year a Twitter account believed to have been operated by her posted a series of photos of young women in niqab brandishing automatic rifles and standing on and around a white BMW.
“5-star jihad. M5 (the BMW) in the land of sham (Syria) he he,” she wrote under one of the photos.
“US + Australia, how does it feel that all 5 of us were born n raised in your lands, & now here thirsty for ur blood?” she wrote next to another photo.
“Can’t mess with my clique. From the land down under, to the land of Khilafah. Thats (sic) the Aussie spirit,” she wrote in another, referring to Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Zehra emerges as Islamic State in tatters
Those posts were at the height of Islamic State’s success.
Since then the militant group has suffered a series of military setbacks and by late last year held only a small area of land in Syria’s south-west province of Deir ez-Zor, near the Iraq border.
In September, a US-backed Kurdish paramilitary group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched a grinding offensive against the remaining Islamic State territory.
Since then, using a combination of ground assaults, artillery and air strikes, the SDF has slowly pushed the remaining militants into ever-smaller areas.
By last week Islamic State forces only controlled the town of Baghuz – a tiny wedge of land about two kilometres wide.
Over the past week as many as 20,000 civilians fled the town and were taken to refugee camps in Syria and Iraq.
Zehra’s Australian family ‘sick and depressed’
Ms Duman’s grandfather, who lives in Melbourne, told the ABC he was very upset with how his granddaughter had turned out.
He said “she was nice before” but had changed within two months.
Her grandfather, who declined to give his full name, said he loved Australia and he wanted the people involved in her conversion to Islamic State supporter to be caught.
“[I] want Australia to catch those who changed her,” he said.
When asked if he thought his granddaughter wanted to come back to Australia, he said: “How could I know? I know nothing.
“If she’s back to Australia, she’s by herself,” he said.
Her father Davut Duman said thinking about the situation made him sick and depressed.
He declined to speak further about his daughter.
Ms Duman’s grandfather said the 25-year-old held dual Australian-Turkish citizenship.
This may mean the Australian government could cancel her Australian citizenship, as she would not be left stateless.
Under Australian law she can only have her citizenship cancelled and refused the right to return if she is also a citizen of another nation.
Australian terrorist used children for propaganda
Convicted terrorist Sharrouf left Australia to join IS in late 2013 and became internationally infamous when the pictures of his son holding a severed head went global.
Even US secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, reacted to the photo.
“This image is really one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed,” Mr Kerry said.
Sharrouf returned to the public consciousness in May 2017 when a video emerged of his youngest son Hamzah being coaxed by his off-screen father to simulate the killing of non-Muslims and Australians.
He became the first Australian to have his citizenship stripped earlier this year under new counter-terrorism legislation. He remained a citizen of Lebanon.
He was killed in a targeted American air strike three months later, suggesting he was senior enough within the IS system to end up on a US kill list.
The revelation about the location of his remaining children will likely be a headache for Canberra, given they were taken by their parents to the war zone and likely coerced into involvement with ISIS.
They hold only Australian citizenship and if they manage to escape Baghuz their Australian family will expect the Australian government to help them return home, as other Western nations have done with other families.
Jihadi brides flee after movement’s collapse
At the height of the Islamic State movement’s popularity in 2014 and 2015 – in the aftermath of their capture of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul – several dozen Australian women left home to join husbands who travelled to Syria to fight, or to marry men already fighting with the Islamic militant group.
Along with hundreds of women from other Western nations, those Australian women became known as Islamic State’s “jihadi brides”.
Many created social media accounts and became well-known online figures, spreading the group’s propaganda and encouraging other women to join them.
The issue of jihadi brides has been front and centre in recent weeks, with Western media outlets discovering some of the women languishing in Syrian refugee camps.
UK citizen Shamima Begum recently left Islamic State-controlled territory and publicly pleaded with the British government to allow her to come home.
In response the conservative government revealed it had revoked her UK citizenship.
In the US, President Donald Trump announced he would prevent the return of US citizen Hoda Muthana after she too did media interviews asking to be allowed to return.
It is unclear what action the Australian government will take regarding Ms Duman.
Brutal movement united extremist groups under one banner
Islamic State was a small gathering of various Iraqi and Syrian extremist groups that shot to global notoriety in 2014 when it captured Mosul.
The United Nations has declared it a terrorist organisation and it has committed a swathe of war crimes and other human rights abuses, including televised beheadings, sexual slavery, using child soldiers and genocidal massacres.
Its main aim appears to be the creation of an Islamic empire or caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa, though since 2014 the group has also encouraged – sometimes enabled – terrorist attacks across the Western and Arab world.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Sydney, Manchester, Paris and dozens of other cities across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North America as part of attacks linked to the Islamic State movement.
The group is also responsible for one of the worst terrorist attacks in recorded history, when in June 2014 a small group of militants killed more than 1500 unarmed Iraqi air force cadets as they left the Camp Speicher military base near Tikrit.