'Difficult conversations': Alleged Kiwi terrorist's arrest in Turkey poses dilemma for NZ authorities - expert

News that a captured alleged Islamic State terrorist is also a New Zealand national means authorities here will have to make some difficult decisions, an expert says.

The Turkish Ministry of National Defence overnight said three Kiwis had been arrested trying to enter Turkey illegally from Syria - one of them, a 26-year-old woman only named as S.A. - a woman on an Interpol wanted list for allegedly being a member of terrorist group Islamic State. 

Complicating matters is that the woman appears to have young children, going by footage uploaded by Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak. In the footage a woman wearing a niqab and carrying a young child is being led to what appears to be court. She's accompanied by a middle-aged man and another young child.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has confirmed it's aware of the apprehensions, but hasn't elaborated further on who they are. 

"Once we've established the facts, we've got some difficult conversations yet to be had," Waikato University international relations expert Al Gillespie told Newshub on Tuesday. 

He estimates around 30 to 40 Kiwis were known to be involved with Islamic State by New Zealand intelligence agencies at the terror group's peak a few years ago. The best-known was Mark Taylor, who made headlines as the 'bumbling Jihadi' and is now in a Kurdish prison. 

"The problem isn't so much with those who were combatants - the problem is with those who were non-combatants like the wives and children, because some countries would argue that you have an obligation to bring them home; other countries would take a different view," said Dr Gillespie. 

Al Gillespie.
Al Gillespie. Photo credit: File

The woman's level of involvement with Islamic State isn't yet known. Dr Gillespie said while New Zealand representatives in Ankara will be doing what they can to ensure the woman has legal representation, they'd stop short of arranging her a flight home. 

"In theory... everyone has a right to return to the country. But just because you have a right to return to the country doesn't mean that the Government is obligated to fly you home or intervene. As some Kiwis would know when they've got in trouble overseas, the embassy or the consulate would help out making sure you've got a lawyer or that you've got an ability to phone home and get the resources you need. They won't actually... facilitate you coming back."

And as anyone who's been overseas in the past year would know, even those with the means can't just jump on a plane and come home. Unless you get lucky, a room in managed isolation and quarantine could be months away. 

"Not only have you got the ethical dilemma of what to do with the women and the children, you've also got the practicalities right now that New Zealand is in a very isolated state, and it's difficult enough to get in as it is because of COVID-19, let alone with these more difficult issues." 

And if the evidence points to her being a jihadi, Dr Gillespie says she can expect to be arrested the second she steps off the plane.

In an interview after surrendering to Kurdish forces in 2018, Taylor - the 'bumbling Jihadi' - said he was keen to return to New Zealand and start a medicinal marijuana company. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said he was welcome to try, but as New Zealand has no diplomatic presence in Syria, where Taylor is being held, the Government couldn't help.

"He would need to make his own way to a country where New Zealand has consular representation - something that in his current situation will be difficult to do," she said in 2019. 

Kiwis had been warned not to travel to Syria, which has suffered a decade-long civil war with multiple sides battling for control. Ardern in 2019 said Taylor would likely face legal action if he made it home.