Isis Kiwi’s journey to Syria and her quest to come home

Suhayra Aden came through the dust, wind, heat and chaos of the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria looking for help.

This New Zealand citizen spoke with that familiar sharp Australian accent, a toddler clinging to her and a baby in her arms.

Her birth certificate might say New Zealand, but everything else about Aden from age 6 onwards was Australian.

At least, until she made the worst decision of her teenage life and travelled to the Middle East to find Isil.

“She was obviously terrified,” says ABC Investigations reporter Dylan Welch. “I could see her hands shaking.

“She explained how worried she was, not only for herself but mainly for the kids. She was terrified she was going to lose the baby.”

Aden cuts a wretched figure in Welch’s description. She is an ill-fit with the woman described by Turkey as a “terrorist” whose detention sparked a transtasman row.

On the day she emerged from seven years in Syria, it emerged Australia cut her and her children loose, abandoning the three and forcing New Zealand to embrace a citizen who hasn’t lived here for 20 years.

For Aden and the other Australian women Welch interview, life in Al-Hawl refugee camp was a life of fear, and of hunger, and sickness. In late 2019, he and colleague Suzanne Drudge travelled to Syria to interview women at the refugee camp who had made the ill-fated decision to embrace life under the Caliphate.

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For Aden, that was in 2014 at the height of the Caliphate, as the would-be state it controlled for a handful of years was called by the tyrannical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This was the aftermath of an insurgency that grew out of the United States’ withdrawal in 2010 from a conflict it had claimed necessary to its War on Terror.

In the year she arrived, Isil held over 100,000km of territory with a population of 11 million residents. In its collapse, it was a spent force that left half a million people dead and 6.5 million dispersed around the world, or into hopeless refugee camps.

The Al-Hawl refugee camp in the northeast of Syria is divided into two parts. One holds the 60,000 people broadly linked to the region and displaced in the Syrian civil war. The other camp of around 10,000 is home to mostly foreign former Isil citizens, often people nobody anywhere in the world wants.

It was “fiendishly hot”, Welch says, with the temperature hitting 48C. There was dust everywhere in the tent city of refugees. “It’s just a desert.”

And for those who live there, it was a dangerous place. Packs of women who remained Isil adherents roamed the camp, beating or stabbing those who failed to cover their faces, or who failed to continue to follow the strictures of the failed regime.

In one tent, Welch spoke with woman after woman who wanted to return home, of the life they had led in the Islamic State, of the children they had born to the husbands they had found, of the consequences of the decision they had made.

When he left the tent, there was one other waiting. It was Aden, who knew from speaking with her mother in Australia that journalists from home had come to hear people’s stories.

As Aden stood there, face shielded by a niqāb, she told Welch of making that journey from Australia, on an Australian passport, and arriving in Turkey. She was 18, perhaps 19 years old, at the time.

“She went to Turkey and changed her mind, called her mum and said she wanted to come home,” he says.

For Aden, it was too late. She had linked with others who were heading into Syria – perhaps they were the reality check that inspired second thoughts – and she was bundled into a van, unable to leave.

“Next thing she knew, she was in Syria.”

Welch is no journalistic ingénue. He knows those women who journeyed to Syria realise the ramifications of their decision – a criminal act in Australia – and knows they will colour their arrival stories in self-serving ways. With Aden, he believed her story.

Aden, of Somali ethnicity, came to Australia from New Zealand, where she was born in 1995.

Former Minister of Immigration Tuariki Delamere, who held the portfolio from 1996 to 1999, said the timing of the move from New Zealand to Australia suggested to him she was from a family of refugees.

If so, the timing would fit. The bitter internecine war that reduced Somalia from a functioning state to a perilous war zone as its people escaped, clustering in international aid camps as they sought escape to a new home elsewhere in the world

A University of Canterbury Masters thesis on the Somali diaspora and resettlement in New Zealand captured the need of those who fled the fighting. “You want to go away from the situation you are in because; it is not a good situation. It is a bad situation. You are looking for a better life, and this is the first thing that comes to your mind.”

For Delamere, the family’s decision to move from New Zealand to Australia reinforced that perception. He recalls, at the time, New Zealand became a convenient back door to our transtasman neighbours for people from all over the world.

“They probably decided things were brighter and sunnier across the other side, so off they went.”

Those families also struggled to settle in their new homes, according to a 2015 University of Canterbury thesis by Dr Hassan Ibrahim. There was a lack of support structures in New Zealand, racism, little done to help develop language skills or to help children integrate with schools.

“There are no national policies or adequate resources to facilitate refugees improving their English-language skills, nor to support schools in other aspects of their communication and collaboration with refugee families,” it reads.

For whatever reason, the family left New Zealand around 2001, when Aden was aged 6, and built their life in Australia. It is not known where they settled but, at the point she left, they were living in Melbourne where a strong Somali community had formed.

Aden’s journey to Syria meant she was one of the women spoken of by NZ Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge in 2015.

Kitteridge told MPs at a Parliamentary hearing: “Something that has changed over the last year is the issue of New Zealand women travelling to Iraq and Syria, which is something we haven’t seen previously or been aware of.”

While Kitteridge would not put a figure on the number of women who had travelled, it is understood it was a small number.

“It’s difficult to see what they do when they go. We definitely do have intelligence that they went. Whether they are going to fight or whether they are going to support other fighters is not clear.”

Welch doubts Aden had a combat role. Few women did under Isil. Instead, Aden became a mother.

“There was no suggestion she was a fighter. Having three kids in a war zone – she wouldn’t have time.”

Aden married a Swedish man who fathered one or two of her children before he was killed. She then married a second Swedish man, with whom she had another – or two – children, before he was killed.

In all, she had three children to two husbands. At one point, one of those children died with pneumonia.

When Welch met her, she feared losing another. The children were small for their age, had no warm clothes and winter was coming. Like other children in the camp, they suffered malnutrition and, when they did get food, dysentery meant it didn’t do any good.

“I’m pretty sure she said to us she just wanted to come home and by that, she meant Australia.”

That won’t be happening. As Welch was speaking to Aden in 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had spoken of Aden but not settled her fate. It was clear, in Ardern’s statements this week, she expected it to be a matter settled another day.

Morrison, however, took a different approach. Without telling Ardern, he authorised the cancellation of Aden’s passport. Doing so slammed the door shut on Australia, where Aden had been raised and grown into the young woman who decided she wanted to travel to Syria.

When Morrison’s action became known to Ardern, it spurred her to anger. For years now, New Zealand had carried the burden of Australia deporting criminals born in New Zealand and raised in Australia. It’s an issue that rankles, particularly as those criminals imported a sophistication to organised crime that had previously been an exception to the rule.

Here, now, was Australia doing the same with those who had links to one of the world’s most infamous terrorist organisations.

Ardern said on Tuesday: “The fair question to ask is whether she should return to New Zealand or Australia. We firmly believe the answer is Australia – and have repeatedly communicated that view to the Australian Government at the highest levels.”

It’s a view with considerable substance. Those who work in counter-terrorism fields consider the best place to deradicalise someone holding extreme views is in a familiar and supportive community. For Aden, it is doubtful she would have other than fleeting memories of New Zealand.

As Ardern phrased it, Australia was best placed to take Aden and her surviving children.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “the Australian Government unilaterally cancelled her citizenship.”

“I think New Zealand, frankly, is tired of having Australia export its problems. This is clearly an individual whose links sit most closely with Australia.”

It is unclear if New Zealand has even developed a programme to deradicalise those with extreme views. The closest we seem to have come is a schedule of planned work published in December 2020 by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the wake of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch attacks.

It includes developing programmes and a Centre of Excellence designed to better understand and deal with extremism.

There is little sign of an actual developed deradicalisation programme. Islamic Women’s Council national co-ordinator Aliya Danzeisen is concerned the task will fall to Islamic communities without financial and structural support. She said deradicalisation required strong networks around the individual affected, which Aden does not have in New Zealand.

“These people who have grown up in Australia have networks and communities they can rely on to build support. Instead, they place them in almost foreign countries. She was a child [when she left New Zealand] and doesn’t have the support networks, as far as I know.”

Based on Kitteridge’s estimate, Aden’s is unlikely to be the only case. Ardern recognised this today, saying: “That was one of the reasons we needed to address this as close partners and friends because rather than just taking an arbitrary view on all of those cases we should have looked at all of those cases and say ‘who is responsible for whom?’.”

Yesterday’s angry blast at Morrison was followed by a more conciliatory tone after the leaders spoke on Tuesday night. She called it a “constructive conversation”.

One comment suggested that conversation was more even-tempered than when Morrison told her Aden’s passport had been cancelled.

“I said nothing publicly that I had not said privately,” Ardern said, suggesting the Australian Prime Minister copped a broadside when he first told her he had ripped the carpet from under her feet.

At Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, senior fellow Jim Rolfe characterises the unseemly diplomatic spat like this: “Family fights can be fiercer than fights with non-family.”

“No doubt she feels let down having raised the issue with Morrison two years ago. On top of that, there is the continual irritation of Australia exporting its criminals, most of them socialised in Australia, to New Zealand.”

Rolfe said he almost got the feeling – and believed Ardern would reject this – that the Prime Minister was annoyed Australia had moved first to remove Aden’s citizenship.

Not telling Ardern might be as simple as forgetting to do so, said Rolfe. The idea he would deliberately wrong-foot a close ally and neighbouring nation would be odd.

“Unless he wants a fight with New Zealand – and I can’t see that he would want a fight – I would go for the cock-up over conspiracy. He might have completely forgotten.”

And it’s not as if Morrison wouldn’t do the same to other allies, such as the United Kingdom or United States although “it’s much easier with New Zealand”.

Rolfe, writing on the transtasman relationship a few years back, coined the phrase “pragmatic optimisation” to describe how it worked. The phrase is intended to convey each country making the most of each other, except when it is disadvantageous to do so.

Through that lens, Morrison’s decision makes sense. It is politically pragmatic for Morrison to send Australia’s criminals, and now a so-called “terrorist”, to New Zealand. The Australian public lap it up.

Ardern’s public anger has a similar pragmatism, says Rolfe. “That would be Ardern playing to her domestic constituency.”

In Turkey, Aden’s long journey home has to survive a court hearing in Turkey, and possibly a prosecution, although it is unclear if there are any charges. Her detention was on the basis of a “blue notice” meaning she was wanted due to information rather than acts of terrorism.

To get there, she had to escape the Al-Hawl refugee camp. That happened eight months ago, Welch was told. “It must have been smugglers,” he said, as it was the only way out.

From the furthest corner of Syria in the northeast, she made her way to Idlib region, at the southern end near the Turkish border. It was a journey that probably took her close to Baghouz, where Isil was crushed in its final bloody stand.

And then she waited and, when she judged the time right, she began the first step of her journey out of Syria towards home, wherever that might be.

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