Islamic State-linked Suhayra Aden could have been 'manipulated, weaponised' if left overseas - counter-terrorism expert

A counter-terrorism expert believes leaving Suhayra Aden overseas could have allowed her to be potentially "manipulated" and "weaponised", creating a risk to New Zealand's national security.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that the Government has agreed to a managed return of Aden and her two young children to New Zealand from Turkey. The trio have been in immigration detention there since Aden was arrested crossing the border from Syria earlier this year and accused of being linked to IS. Turkey, which has dropped charges against her, has asked for New Zealand to repatriate her. 

That created a mess for trans-Tasman relations as Aden previously held dual New Zealand-Australian citizenship, having been born in Aotearoa before moving across the ditch with her family at the age of six. However, Australia has revoked her citizenship there, making the woman New Zealand's issue.

"New Zealand is not able to remove citizenship from a person and leave them stateless, and as New Zealand citizens this country is the only place where they can currently legally reside," Ardern said on Monday. 

The Prime Minister said New Zealand has now accepted Turkey's request, having been assured by Australia that "it will proactively consult with New Zealand if any such case arises in future".

She said extensive planning by police and other agencies has been underway for Aden's return and to address potential security concerns, but specific details won't be revealed for legal and operational reasons.

"I can assure people great care is being taken as to how the woman and her young children are returned to New Zealand and how they will be managed in a way that minimises any risk for New Zealanders."

But Greg Barton, a counter-terrorism expert and the chair of Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University in Melbourne, believes she's probably of little risk and New Zealand must consider the children.

"Their best chance of success is to be with their mum," he told The AM Show on Tuesday. "That justifies taking the risk with the mum, but it is a low risk with the mum."

"As far as we know, from all the evidence, she was early on reluctant about ending up with Islamic State and doesn't show signs of radicalisation. She will be properly assessed and there will be checks and balances in place." 

Barton said if Aden was let free in the Middle East, the consequences may be worse for New Zealand. 

"If she was left to go free in Turkey and fall back on a terrorist underground with no other social networks, the chances of her being manipulated and used, and I say, weaponised through online communication - through social media - are high and that is actually really bad for the national security of both Australia and potentially New Zealand," he said.

"Having her back where she can be hopefully rehabilitated but certainly from being kept from going online and being used by extremists is much safer for everyone."

Under New Zealand's counter-terrorism laws, Aden could have retricted access to the internet and be stopped from associating with certain individuals. Police have confirmed they are investigating her, but counter-terrorism expert Paul Buchanan has told RNZ charges would be "unfair". 

"We have to remember she has committed no crime in New Zealand," Buchanan said. "She left ... to go to the battlefields of the Middle East as a concubine, as a camp follower, not as a fighter so she has committed no crimes as far as anyone knows, in Syria or in Turkey."

Aden's lawyer, Deborah Manning, has been reported by Stuff as saying that the woman is  "looking forward to being in New Zealand and giving her children an opportunity at living here and integrating, and really wishes to have privacy for them to allow them to settle in here and come to terms with everything they have been through".

Suhayra Aden has been linked to the Islamic State terror group.
Suhayra Aden has been linked to the Islamic State terror group. Photo credit: Yeni Safak newspaper screenshot.

When Aden arrives in New Zealand, Barton said authorities will do a full assessment of her risk to herself, to her children and to others as well as trying to understand her background and journey. 

"Then to try and effect some rehabilitation. She will be, no doubt, very traumatised, and that in itself needs a lot of work," Barton told The AM Show.

"The Islamic State aspect is exotic and worrying, but every other aspect of this case - children from a damaged environment, a damaged young woman - it is pretty familiar stuff for authorities and there is a lot of good expertise when it comes to psychologists, psychiatrists, health professionals. All of that will be brought to bear."

He said Middle Eastern and Asian nations have done well in repatriating their citizens caught in similar cases, while Western nations have largely "dropped the ball". 

"It is a shame on Western democracy that there is not greater responsibility, but also greater awareness of self-interest. Leaving these people abroad in an age of social media, instantaneous communication is a recipe for them being used by extremists.

"Bringing them home keeps them off that circuit, hopefully rehabilitates them, delivers kids out of a hellish situation and gives us a chance of breaking the cycle of radicalisation and that has got to be good for everyone."

One high-profile case of a former Islamic State bride who has been refused re-entry to their country of origin is Shamima Begum who left the United Kingdom as a 15-year-old in 2015 for a life with the terrorist organisation. Four years later she was discovered living in a Syrian refugee camp, with her two children dead and her IS fighter husband nowhere to be seen. 

At the time, she pleaded to return to her home country with her third child. But the British Home Secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, revoked her citizenship and her child later died. Her lawyers have been fighting to let her back into the UK, but she's been ruled a security risk.