In the middle of Islamic State’s chaotic last stand in Syria, a 26-year-old Australian man made a desperate call to his father in Melbourne.
- Mahir Absar Alam went to Syria to join the Islamic State group in 2014
- He told the ABC in April that he never fought for the group and regretted his decision
- His father, Jahangir, is urging Australia to get his son and grandchildren, and their mother, out of Syria
Should he stay in the besieged enclave of Baghouz, or surrender with other members of the extremist group?
“He said, ‘the truck is here, what should I do?’,” said Jahangir Alam.
As the caliphate crumbled around Mahir Absar Alam, his father had been seeking advice from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
“I said, ‘I talked to the AFP, they tell you to jump on [the truck] and go where they take you.’ After that it was very hard for me to continue to talk to him,” Mr Alam said, his voice cracking.
It has been five years since Mahir deceived his family and left Australia for Syria to find an Islamic utopia.
Now he is being held in a Kurdish prison, and his father is begging for Australia to bring him, his Syrian wife, and their two children home.
“The Government should bring them back and deal with them under Australian law.
“From my son’s perspective, [he] is not as bad as everyone thinks,” Mr Alam said.
A father’s dream for his child turns into a nightmare
Jahangir Alam and his wife came to Australia from Bangladesh when she was four months pregnant with Mahir.
“We were excited that he was to be born in Australia. He would have a better life and good education,” he said.
The family moved around rural Australia for Mr Alam’s job as an irrigation engineer, and he made sure his son had a normal childhood.
“He’d go out, had lots of friends. He used to work at Woolies. His counter was always full of people — just his counter. All the people loved him too much,” he said.
Jahangir Alam said Mahir had barely shown any interest in Islam until shortly before he left Australia.
“I would ask him, ‘I am going to prayer, do you want to go with me?’, and he’d say, ‘Dad I am sleeping, don’t disturb me.’ He has no understanding of the religion at all.”
In 2014, at the age of 21, Mahir left home for what his parents believed was a 10-day trip to Shepparton, Victoria.
But then the AFP contacted the family and told them that Mahir and three friends had instead flown to Dubai and then on to Greece.
Mr Alam said he begged the police to stop his son’s journey to the Middle East in mid-2014, but was told nothing could be done.
“They said, ‘no, we can’t stop them. They are adults’,” Mr Alam said.
Within weeks Mahir was in the Islamic State group’s “capital” of Raqqa, Syria.
Two of his Australian travel companions died within months of their arrival.
Mahir’s parents could not understand why he had gone to live under the extremist group’s despotic rule.
“He told us he had gone there to help people who are suffering, he had gone there to help. My understanding is somehow they are brainwashed,” he said.
Mr Alam does not believe his son would have the temperament to be a fighter.
“He cannot stay in room by himself. Even when he was in Year 11 or 12 … he could not sleep unless my wife slept in the other bed in his room. He’d fall asleep, then my wife would leave.”
Mahir Alam in limbo in Kurdish prison
Mahir Alam would occasionally make contact with his parents while living in IS territory.
He told them that he was doing hospital work, and that he was injured and had received surgery to his hand in Raqqa.
After he surrendered, Mahir was taken to a Syrian prison.
His father has not been able to contact him since.
In an interview with the ABC in April, Mahir Alam insisted he had never picked up a weapon, and only joined IS after he fell for the group’s propaganda.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.VIDEO 0:59
Mahir Alam’s face has been blurred in this video at the request of the Syrian Democratic ForcesABC NEWS
“Everyone is saying they’re not a fighter. I wasn’t an actual fighter,” he told the ABC.
“I’m stuck between all these people who are saying the same story, so I’m screwed now.”
It is still unclear what will happen to Australian IS recruits imprisoned in Syria.
Iraq has offered to try the foreign IS fighters held by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Several French IS fighters have been deported from Syria to Iraq, where they’ve been convicted and sentenced to death.
But the Foreign Minister for Kurdish-controlled Syria, Dr Abdul Karim Omar, has told the ABC that remaining foreign IS members will be tried there.
He wants international support for trials to be conducted in Syria.
“We don’t have plans to send any Australians or other foreign IS prisoners to third countries. Those people need to be judged here,” he said.
But the Kurds say they have had no contact from Canberra about the Australian citizens currently in their custody.
Mahir’s wife and children are now stuck in Raqqa
Mahir Alam married a woman from Raqqa within a year of arriving in Syria and they had two children together.
The youngest child was born in Baghouz in February, as the last sliver of IS territory fell to Kurdish-led forces.
His mother was evacuated along with other IS family members to al-Hawl refugee camp.
She has since been released from the camp and is now thought to be living in Raqqa with the children.
It is believed their baby boy has been sick.
“A couple of weeks ago he was in hospital again because there was no food, no good meat, no good water. That’s why he’s sick,” Mr Alam said.
He would like his grandchildren and their mother to come to Australia.
However, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the issue of whether to try to bring children back to Australia was incredibly complex.
“For some there is an expectation that Australian officials should put themselves in harm’s way to extricate those children who’ve been left by their families,” she said.
Still, Mr Alam hopes the Government will take pity on his son.
“As a parent I want my son to come back to us. I want to make a heartfelt request to the Government, bring them back to Australia,” he said.
However he said he knew it was unlikely his son would ever get to come home.
“We feel very sad about it. We hope the Government would think he should not be stateless as an Australian citizen,” he said.