Zehra Duman shocked friends and family when, in 2014 at 19 years old, she left Australia to join the so-called Islamic State.
Zehra would become one of the most notorious of the foreign women to join the terror group, using her social media platforms to encourage other women to join and calling for violence against Australia and the West.
Now, she is believed to be waiting alongside fellow former IS brides British Shemima Begum and American Hoda Muthana in Al-Hol, a makeshift camp for displaced people in Syria and is hoping to come home to Australia.
Zehra’s mother Ossie was born in Australia to Turkish parents, “I raised Zehra with normal, Australian, values. Not that religious at all.” To this day, Ossie believes her daughter was brainwashed by radicals who fed her a warped view of Islam and lured Zehra to Syria with false promises.
Ossie still remembers the last time she saw Zehra Duman. “She had packed a small bag and told me that she was going away for the weekend with some friends. She was wearing a beautiful orange headscarf.” The headscarf stands out in Ossie’s memory, as her 19 year old daughter had recently taken to wearing the all-black clothing often associated with more conservative Islam, something which Ossie found disconcerting, but which Zehra assured her was nothing to worry about.
“She came into the bathroom where I was, gave me a kiss and told me she loved me,” Ossie recounts, “it was completely normal, she was always affectionate and we were very close, I didn’t think anything of it.”
The next time Ossie spoke to her daughter, she was in Syria – having pledged her allegiance to the terrorist organisation, IS. That was November, 2014. In the four years since, Ossie has been living a mother’s worst nightmare. “I couldn’t believe it when she told me where she was…I still can’t.”
“The toll this has taken on me is unimaginable … I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Ossie told Dateline.
Ossie was shocked by the reports of her daughter’s activities while living in the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Upon arrival in Syria, Zehra married Mahmoud Abdullatif, the infamous extremist who traded-in his Melbourne party-boy lifestyle to fight for IS. Soon after, Zehra changed her name to Umm Abdullatif, and it is under this moniker that many of her infamous messages were posted on Twitter.
Mahmoud Abdullatif was reportedly killed in January 2015, but Zehra remained committed to IS and continued to post provocative anti-Western messages on her social media accounts, calling for violence against the West and posing with weapons.
Throughout her time with IS, Zehra was able to make intermittent contact with her mother, and Ossie believes that Zehra was forced to make these statements online, having no choice but to do as she was told. “She could never come right out and tell me that, it would have been dangerous for her, but I feel in my heart she was trying to let me know at times that those messages were not her idea.”
In mid-2017, Zehra sent word to Ossie that she wanted to try to escape the so-called Islamic State. “She told me she wanted to come home, and that she would try to get across the border into Turkey. I travelled to Turkey many times in that year, but she was never able to escape. I know she feared getting caught. She worried they would kill her if she tried to get away but didn’t make it.”
“Months later she told me that she did get caught. She said they put her in jail. I’m just so grateful they didn’t kill her. She wanted out.”
“This has practically bankrupted me, all those trips to try to get her, it’s not like I’m a millionaire, I’m just a mum that worked all her life for her kids and now I can’t even work to support myself because of the trauma and stress this has caused me,” Ossie told Dateline.
Ossie says Zehra now has two young children under the age of three. “I have spent every second of every day since Zehra left in fear for her life, and the lives of my grandkids. It’s a nightmare. I know my daughter’s heart, and I know this isn’t who she truly is.”
Zehra says she is now at the overflowing Al-Hol camp – teeming with nearly 40,000 people, many of whom are believed to be former IS members.
“She messaged to say that she was going to Al-Hol. That she didn’t have any food for the kids. That she wanted me to go and get her. But I can’t go get her. The Australian government needs to bring them home.”
Dateline contacted the Home Affairs office for comment on Zehra’s case. A government spokesperson told Dateline:
"The Australian Government’s capacity to confirm the identities of individuals in Syria is extremely limited as is its ability to provide assistance.
"Australian officials cannot facilitate the safe passage of people out of the conflict zones.
"Anyone fighting with or providing support or associating with ISIS or other terrorist groups has committed a serious crime and will face the consequences should they return to Australia."
“I am not proud of what my daughter has done and I don’t defend her actions, but I want her brought home,” Ossie told Dateline. “She is an Australian citizen... She should be brought back here to face Australian authorities, and her children should be here safe with family.”
Ossie’s plea comes at a time where the fate of the foreign IS brides is being hotly debated. The UK government has yet to decide what to do with IS bride Shemima Begum, who recently made headlines from inside Al-Hol, pleading for the British government to bring her and her infant son back to the UK.
Ossie says she has fully cooperated with the Australian Federal Police since Zehra’s departure and knows there are no simple solutions for these women, “I understand that this is not something the authorities have had to deal with before, young girls going off to join a group like this, it’s uncharted territory.”
Ossie understands that many Australians will feel Zehra’s decision to renounce Australia and pledge her loyalty to the so-called Islamic State relieves the Australian government of its responsibility for her fate, but Ossie strongly disagrees.
“She’s Australian, and she’s made a horrible mistake, but she has a right to come home and face justice here, where at least she will be safe.”
A government spokesperson told Dateline:
“… the Morrison Government is determined to deal with these people as far from our shores as possible and ensure that any who do return do so with forewarning and into the hands of appropriate agencies.
"We have legislation before the Parliament which will enable us to impose Temporary Exclusion Orders preventing these people from returning to Australia until their actions and circumstances can be considered on a case by case basis
"Some of these people - those who are dual nationals, by their actions, may have forfeited their Australian citizenship and will not be able to return to Australia. A number of people have already lost their Australian citizenship.”
Zehra’s Duman’s mother is appealing to Australians and the Morrison government to empathise with her situation.
“This is all that I want to say at this time: bring my daughter home. I don’t plan to say anything more to the media for now, and I hope my privacy will be respected. And I hope that any parent out there will put themselves in my shoes and let the government know that they support bringing these girls back to Australia.”
*Ossie does not wish to provide her full name.