A New South Wales woman has been charged over allegedly entering and remaining in parts of Syria that were under the control of the Islamic State terrorist organisation in 2014.
The woman, 31-year-old mother Mariam Raad, returned to Australia in October 2022 after being repatriated to Australia from a Syrian refugee camp.
Police allege that Raad knowingly entered the ‘declared area’ of al-Raqqa province in 2014.
She is alleged to have travelled to Syria to be with her husband, Muhammad Zahab who had joined Islamic State as a fighter.
Zahab was an Australian maths teacher who allegedly turned into an Islamic State recruiter.
It has been reported that he delivered more than a dozen Australians to Islamic State, including his relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
Police will allege that Raad was aware of her husband’s activities with Islamic State, and willingly travelled to the conflict region.
Zahab died in Syria in 2018, after travelling to the country in 2013.
Following his death, Raad and her children were held in Al Roj Internally Displaced Persons camp.
The NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) reports that she was charged after a complex and long-term investigation that began when Raad was in Syria and continued following her return to Australia.
She was arrested after police executed search warrants in Young, and at Parklea, which provided newly obtained evidence enabling the JCTT to charge her.
Raad has been released on conditional bail by the Griffith Local Court, with her matter next listed on 15 March 2023.
The police have noted in a statement that: “there is no current or impending threat to the Australian community as part of this activity.”
Raad was apart of the group of 17 Australian citizens, 4 women and 13 children, whom the Australian government repatriated from the Roj camp in north-east Syria.
The women were all married or related to Islamic State fighters who are now dead or in jail.
Raad is the only person from the group who has been charged so far.
However, AFP Acting Assistant Commissioner Counter Terrorism and Special Investigations Command, Sandra Booth has said the JCTT would continue to investigate Australians returning from declared conflict areas to ensure the safety of the Australian community.
“Individuals will be brought before the courts when evidence supports allegations that returned individuals have committed offences in conflict areas,” she noted.
It is believed that around 40 Australian citizens are currently remaining in Syrian camps, including the wives and children of Islamic State fighters who have been incarcerated or killed.
The Offence of Entering and Remaining in a Declared Area in a Foreign Country
Section 119.2 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) makes it an offence for an Australian (citizen, resident, visa holder etc.) to enter, or remain in, an area in a foreign country if it is prescribed a ‘declared area’ by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
A maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment is applicable.
However, the Act provides exceptions where the person enters, or remains in, the area solely for one or more of the following purposes:
- providing humanitarian aid,
- making a genuine visit to a family member,
- making a news report of events in the area whilst working in a professional capacity as a journalist,
- performing official duties for the Commonwealth, a State or Territory, the government of a foreign country, for the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross,
- appearing before a court or tribunal, and
- any other purpose prescribed by regulations.
The offence also does not apply if a person enters, or remains in, a declared area solely for service with the armed forces of a foreign country, or for service with another armed force where this service is covered by a determination made by the Minister for Home Affairs.
The defendant bears the evidential burden, in providing that an exception has been satisfied.
Before listing an area as a ‘declared area’ the Minister for Foreign Affairs must be satisfied that a listed terrorist organisation is engaging in a hostile activity in that area of the foreign country.
There are currently 29 organisations listed as terrorist organisations under the Criminal Code.
This includes groups such as Al-Qa’ida, Hamas, Islamic State, National Socialist Order, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the Sonnenkrieg Division.
As of January 2023, there are no declared areas currently in effect.
If the Minister for Foreign Affairs declares an area, the government will notify the public by publishing this update, including through media releases.
To date, the following two areas have been declared:
- al-Raqqa Province, Syria (on 4 December 2014).
- Mosul district, Ninewa Province, Iraq (on 2 March 2015).
The declaration with respect to the al-Raqqa Province was revoked on 27 November 2017, and the declaration for the Mosul district expired on 3 March 2018.
Unless extended by the Parliament, section 119.2 will cease to have effect at the end of 7 September 2024.
The Government has noted that the rationale behind criminalizing this conduct includes deterring Australians from travelling to such areas, and the risk posed by individuals who seek to return to Australia after fighting for or supporting terrorist organisations offshore.