Australia Accused Islamic State supporter Mohamed Zuhbi arrives in Australia after being deported from Turkey

23:16  08 may  2021
23:16  08 may  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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An accused Islamic State facilitator wanted here and in the US for his alleged role with the terrorist group has been returned to Australia eight years after he left to become involved in the Syrian civil war.

Mohamed Zuhbi, 30, arrived in Melbourne late yesterday afternoon after being deported by Turkey, where he had served an 18-month prison sentence for joining Islamic State and related crimes.

In a complex arrangement highlighting the issues of returning foreign fighters, Zuhbi was arrested on arrival by the Australian Federal Police and then taken into Victoria Police custody, where he was to commence a fortnight's COVID quarantine before being extradited to Sydney on a NSW arrest warrant.

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Once in NSW, the AFP intends to charge him with six terrorism-related offences related to his seven years in Syria and Turkey. 

Yesterday's arrest was the culmination of a six-year AFP investigation, dubbed Operation Pengersick, AFP Deputy Commissioner Ian McCartney said.

"Australia works closely with our international security and law enforcement partners to support the management of terrorist threats offshore," he said.

"And as operations like this show, we are unwavering in our determination to see these cases through.

"We have a responsibility to prevent our citizens from contributing to violence and instability overseas."

The AFP expects to charge Zuhbi with engaging in hostilities in Syria, giving support to a terrorist organisation, and entering a declared area.

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The other three charges Zuhbi is expected to face relate to allegations of helping other people to fight in Syria — meaning the AFP suspects him of being a recruiter for Islamic State who encouraged Westerners to leave their countries and join the group.

In 2016, the US Department of Justice charged Zuhbi with helping US men Asher Abid Khan and Sixto Ramiro Garcia plan to enter Syria to fight for ISIS but this is the first time that Australian authorities have accused Zuhbi of playing such a role. 

Zuhbi has previously denied the US allegations.

The facilitation charges relate to one US citizen — likely to be Khan or Garcia — and two Australians, according to the AFP.  

It is unknown who the two Australians are, but Zuhbi was close to many of the Australian men who went to fight and die in Syria and Iraq with Islamic State.

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Zuhbi is also one of the very few Australians to have made it back home from the bloody Syrian war: most of the more than 200 Australians who lived under or fought for IS in the Middle East have either died or languish in dire conditions in detention camps and jails in Syria and Iraq.

Two Australians who had their citizenship cancelled, IS fighter Neil Prakash and Islamic State bride Zehra Duman, also remain in Turkey after being arrested there.

At its height, Islamic State-controlled an area across Syria and Iraq the size of Britain and governed the lives of up to 12 million people.

It gained global infamy for a well-documented series of war crimes and abuses, including the attempted genocide of Yazidis, killing of prisoners, public executions and floggings, and crimes against women.

The group was officially defeated in Iraq and Syria in March 2019 by US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, but it continues to exist in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Islamic State remains a declared terrorist group here and overseas.

From 2013 to 2015, Zuhbi claimed to be an aid worker, working in areas near the Turkish-Syrian border providing bread and other assistance to Syrian war refugees.

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He then dropped off the radar for five years. However, last year the ABC revealed a Turkish court judgment that stated that Zuhbi had confessed to joining Islamic State.

Zuhbi allegedly said that in 2015 he travelled to Islamic State's de-facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, where he joined the group and underwent weeks of religious and military training.

He "served on the front line" and was then assigned a role in an Islamic State office connected to transport and communication and also worked as an English translator, he told Turkish authorities.

He did not remain committed to the Islamic State when the tide turned against it, however: in mid-2017 when Raqqa fell to a Kurdish offensive, instead of retreating with IS fighters, Zuhbi paid smugglers to flee to Syria's north-west.

He lived there for two years — even marrying local women and opening a childcare centre — before being captured at a checkpoint by a pro-Turkish militia, the Turkish court heard.

He was sent to Turkey where he was held in a Turkish immigration centre and ultimately sentenced to 18 months' jail for joining Islamic State and related crimes, the documents state.

While the court judgement seen by the ABC purports to be based on Zuhbi's own confession, the Turkish judicial system has become increasingly controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian government and convictions and confessions there would likely not meet the levels of evidence required in the Australian judicial system.

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Zuhbi accused of helping Americans join IS

His return home is the end of a protracted period in which Turkey, Australia and the US all sought Zuhbi for various reasons.

Turkey was the first to prosecute him but the US continued to press their case, with prosecutors in Houston accusing him of helping two US men travel to Syria to fight for IS.

In 2015, the FBI charged Houston man Asher Abid Khan with conspiring to kill people overseas and provide material support to Islamic State.

The charges related to an alleged 2014 plan hatched by Khan and another US citizen, Sixto Ramiro Garcia, to travel to Syria to join the group.

In material filed with the US District Court, prosecutors alleged that Khan and Garcia had an "unnamed co-conspirator" — identified only as "CC-1" — who played a central role in facilitating their plan to join Islamic State.

Prosecutors later identified CC-1 as Zuhbi.

In March 2016, they announced they had charged Zuhbi with providing material support to Islamic State and conspiring to kill people overseas.

However, it appears that the US has now consented to Zuhbi being tried in Australia.

Comment is being sought from the US Department of Justice about whether their case against Zuhbi remains open.

Last year, Zuhbi's Sydney-based father, Bara, told the ABC he was in contact with his son, who was at that time held in Turkey.

Bara Zuhbi said the US charges against his son were "false and exaggerated".

Zuhbi is the second Australian returned home from the Middle East following a 2019 decision by the Turkish Government to begin deporting almost 1,000 people they accused of being Islamic State members or associates, and their relatives.

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The first Australian returned from Turkey as part of those deportations, 30-year-old Queensland man Agim Ajazi, arrived in Australia in early December 2019.

He is facing five federal terrorism offences, including entering Syria with the intention of fighting and being a member of the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusrah.

'The only thing I've helped with is charity work'

Zuhbi left Australia for Syria in 2013, where he adopted the name Mohamed Ibn Albaraa.

He came to the attention of Australian authorities and the public when he released videos showing himself delivering aid to Syrians in the north-western province of Lattakia, which borders Turkey.

In May 2014, a person using Zuhbi's adopted name and linked to his Facebook page hosted a question-and-answer session on website ask.fm about travelling to Syria.

In answer to a question about how to avoid the risk of being refused entry to Syria, the person said: "If you try and enter legit border crossings, you will likely get sent back, but if you get smuggled in, like most, you will not have any issues."

The ABC interviewed Zuhbi in late June 2014, the same month Mosul fell to Islamic State and the group declared its global caliphate.

In that interview, Zuhbi said he had received more than $30,000 in donations before his bank account was shut down by the Australian Government.

"We look after the injured, the orphans and the widows … we also sponsor bakeries, we've sponsored ambulances like for patient transport," he said.

He rejected suggestions he was providing financial assistance to Islamic State or other terrorist groups.

"Funding for jihad and so on and so forth, it doesn't come in amounts of $100, $20, $50 and so on — it comes in amounts of 100,000, 50,000, 200,000," he told the ABC.

The ABC asked him if he was working as a middleman to help people enter Syria.

"The only thing I've helped with is charity work, I haven't helped with anything else," he said.

"Where's the proof if they want to accuse anyone of doing that?"

He attracted so much attention he also appeared live from Turkey during an episode of the SBS panel show, Insight.

"Look, I'm not, I'm not a part of any particular group but I'm most vocal, vocally supportive of the Islamic State," he told the audience.

"I believe that they are the future of Syria and I believe that they're the future of the Islamic empire to come.

"I have full conviction that at the rate that they're going, they will indeed establish justice and establish the Koran of Islam in the land."

Zuhbi told Insight he was not fighting, but confirmed he was comfortable with other Australian Muslims fighting for Islamic State.

"Look, just as the Israeli Defence Force has Australian members in it, serving, killing innocent children and women … if an Australian citizen wants to fight for IS and fight the oppressors like the Assad regime, look, this is their personal choice."

In August 2016, a home associated with Zuhbi's family in Sydney's south-west was raided by federal police over allegations of overseas terrorism financing.

In May 2018, Zuhbi was captured by Kurdish forces and held for six months before being released, his father told the ABC last year.

Then, in June 2019, he was detained for a second time by a Turkish-backed militia, the Sultan Murad Division, at a checkpoint in or near the northern Syrian city of Efrin, where he had gone to buy cooking equipment.

The militia held him for three months before sending him to Turkey where he was tried.

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