Three Australian orphans of an Islamic State foreign fighter from Melbourne are being held in a Syrian refugee camp, sparking a delicate diplomatic struggle over their future.
- The father of the orphaned children, Yasin Rizvic, died fighting for IS around 2016
- Pressure is building on the Government to bring the children back to Australia
- The orphans are among more than 40 Australian women and children who survived the battle for Baghouz
The two girls and a boy, aged between six and 12, are the children of foreign fighter Yasin Rizvic and his wife Fauzia Khamal Bacha, who joined Islamic State in 2014.
The ABC has confirmed that two sets of Australian orphans are stranded in Syria — the Rizvic children and the children of the barbaric foreign fighter Khaled Sharrouf and his wife Tara Nettleton.
International pressure continues to build on governments to extricate children who have survived the bloody conflict.
Rizvic, a former senior figure at the Al-Furqan centre in Melbourne, which has repeatedly been linked to radical extremism, was killed while fighting for the terrorist group around 2016.
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Bacha and their four children survived, multiple sources speaking on condition of anonymity told the ABC, before she and their eldest boy died in separate incidents, leaving the three youngest children alone in one of the Kurdish-controlled refugee camps in western Syria.
The children have no family in Australia, as their father hailed from Bosnia and their mother from Singapore.
The orphans’ uncle, who is Rizvic’s brother, is pushing for the children to be resettled in Bosnia, but it is unclear if Bacha’s family is aware of the fate of their daughter.
The orphans are among more than 40 Australian women and children who survived the battle for Baghouz, the last remaining Islamic State territory, in March.
Pressure builds for government intervention
The Australian Government is under pressure from the United States Government and the Syrian Democratic Forces — the Kurdish militia which control the refugee camps — to transport citizens home as soon as possible.Do you know more about this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The humanitarian organisations that work in the camps are also applying pressure to the Government, and Australian women and children who have spoken from Syria are pleading to be returned.
But the case of the Rizvic children shapes as particularly complex.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly stated that Australians who find their way to an Australian embassy will be assisted to return home, but that he would not risk the lives of any officials by involving them in a rescue mission.
Should any citizen be extricated from the camps, all of them, including children, will be given thorough risk assessments, and some of the women are already the subject of arrest warrants.
Bosnia, on the other hand, is one of several countries which has made efforts to transport its citizens from Syria.
Former friends of the family, who did not wish to be named, hope the Australian and Bosnian governments will be able to come to agreement to let the Bosnians extend the same humane approach to the Rizvics.
Both parents were Australian citizens, the friends said, meaning their children would be eligible for citizenship, even if born overseas.
The eldest child is believed to have been born in Australia.
It is believed they are eligible for Bosnian citizenship, but it is unclear how they would be granted that citizenship in the camp.
The two youngest children are understood to have been born after the couple left Australia, where they lived in Melbourne’s south-east.
A Bosnian woman is believed to be caring for them in the camp and in regular contact with their uncle.
The ABC has confirmed that Australian authorities are in contact with Bosnian security experts, but it is unclear if this is part of the vetting process to allow the children to be adopted.
Friends of the couple — including Harun Mehicevic, the founder of the now-closed Al-Furqan — have lobbied Islamic community leaders to pressure the Australian Government into assisting in removing the children from the camp as soon as possible.
Mr Mehicevic, who is no longer preaching in Melbourne, declined to comment.
A senior community source, who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of the case, told the ABC there was lingering distrust of the Government’s efforts because after Rizvic died, Bacha was not assisted to flee the caliphate with her children.
“The mum had been trying to get them home,” the source said.
“They’re just kids, in this situation because of the choice of their parents.”
A former friend of Rizvic said Bacha’s mother had travelled to Melbourne from Singapore to visit her grandchildren on at least one occasion. She was devastated when they left for Syria, but the friend said it was unclear whether Bacha’s family were also seeking to adopt the children.
Global outcry over kids in camps
Somewhere between 3,700 and 4,600 foreign children were taken to Syria to join IS — representing about 10 per cent of all foreigners — and a further 730 were born there to foreign parents, according to the UK-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.YOUTUBE:Four Corners: Walk through al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria
International aid agency Save the Children estimates that more than 3,500 of those foreign children now languish in three refugee camps in Syria’s north-east.
It is unclear where the Rizvic children are being held.
Dozens of children have been repatriated by countries including France, Russia, Egypt and Indonesia. Earlier this month the Swedish Government became the latest nation to repatriate children from Syria, when they organised the return of seven orphans from the largest of the refugee camps, al-Hawl.
Other countries have declined to remove children.
In early March the three-week-old baby of British teenager Shamina Begum died at one of the camps. The British Government had refused to assist Ms Begum or her child and there was a public outcry in the UK after the death.
The ABC visited al-Hawl in March and found children suffering from a variety of illnesses including dysentery, anaemia and the skin disease leishmaniasis as well as shocking list of wounds and injuries caused by the grinding Syrian civil war.
Mat Tinkler, Save the Children Australia’s director of international programs, said the situation was dire, particularly in al-Hawl.
“Conditions there are desperate — it’s one of the worst places in the world to be a child right now,” he said.
“All children who have lived under ISIS control have experienced horrific events like violence, acute depravation and bombardment. They are the victims of the terrible decisions by their parents and they all deserve to be brought home.
“The Australian Government must exhaust all avenues to bring Australian children home before it is too late.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been contacted for comment.
Dead fighters linked to Al-Furqan
Rizvic was a close associate Harun Mehicevic, the founder of the Al-Furqan Da’wah Centre and Bookshop in Melbourne’s outer south-east, according to multiple former attendees.
The centre has repeatedly been linked to foreign fighters including senior Islamic State recruiter and propagandist Neil Prakash, and domestic violent extremists such as Numan Haider, who was shot dead after stabbing two police officers, and Sevdet Besim, who was convicted of planning a terror attack on Anzac Day.
Mr Mehicevic repeatedly denied any link between Al-Furqan and terrorism.
Mr Mehicevic, like Rizvic, settled in Australia as a young man after fleeing Bosnia after the war in the 1990s.
The pair lived in Brisbane before moving to Melbourne in the mid-2000s.
Unlike Mr Mehicevic, Rizvic largely escaped public scrutiny, including when he left Australia to join the terror group. There is no suggestion his association with Mehicevic contributed to his decision to join Islamic State.
He was aged in his early 40s at the time of his death, but it may not have been his first time in combat. One former centre attendee said he believed Rizvic fought in the Bosnian war as a teenager.
The pair bought land in Bosnia, according to local news reports, and were close to others in the country who shared their Wahhabi Salafist interpretation of Islam.
It was a crude attempt at establishing a caliphate, according to the reports, several years before Islamic State brutally popularised the concept.
The men lived with their young families in the same Melbourne suburban cul-de-sac in Springvale South, just around the corner from Al-Furqan.
In 2012, their quiet suburban existence morphed into something more sinister.
In April, the pair helped organise a protest at the Global Atheist Convention, chanting on the steps of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre that various guests at the convention would burn in hell.
Rizvic was captured in footage of the protest vigorously debating with a counter-protester and sharing conversation with Mr Mehicevic.
The protest was attended by other men who would become Islamic State foreign fighters or be subject to domestic terrorism investigations.
Al-Furqan had already come under the watch of ASIO and the AFP, and the protest served as a valuable intelligence-gathering exercise.
But another method of gathering intelligence at the centre proved far less valuable.
That August, a source who had infiltrated Al-Furqan was exposed.
“By the will of Allah the Almighty The Best of Plotters, we expose a spy amongst us,” Rizvic was reported to have posted on Facebook at the time.
Anti-terror police swept through the houses of Al-Furqan attendees in raids across Melbourne only days later.
A counter-terrorism source told the ABC that Rizvic was not a main target of the raids, which resulted in terrorism charges against Adnan Karabegovic.
Karabegovic, who was later found not guilty of all charges, owned a home insulation business with Rizvic, which the men operated during the so-called pink batts scheme.
It was not the last time that counter-terror police would target Al-Furqan’s followers.
In 2015, police swooped again, in raids that ultimately resulted in Mr Mehicevic deciding to close the centre.
“We believe that given the constant harassment, pressure and false accusations levelled against the centre — particularly by media and politicians — this is the best course of action for the protection of the local community, its members, and the broader Muslim community that is often implicated in these insidious campaigns,” Mr Mehicevic said in a statement in 2015.
Between these two major counter-terrorism operations, Rizvic is believed to have slipped out of Australia with his wife and children, bound for Syria, never to return.