CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's prime minister said Wednesday he felt for the five children of an Australian convicted terrorist in the Islamic State movement who became notorious last year for posing for photographs while clutching the severed heads of Syrian victims.
But Prime Minister Tony Abbott would make no promises that his government would help repatriate the young family from the Middle East following the father's reported death, saying that keeping Australia safe was his first priority.
Reports that the children's Australian father Khaled Sharrouf, 33, and his Australian friend Mohamed Elomar, 30, had been killed in airstrikes have intensified calls from relatives for Australian help to bring the family home.
Contrary to initial media reports that the airstrikes were in the Islamic State-held city of Mosul in Iraq, authorities now suspect that the pair died in an attack on a motorcade in their adopted home of Raqqa in Syria, a government official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to release that information.
Sharrouf slipped out of Australia in late 2013 and his Muslim-convert wife, Tara Nettleton, followed him to Syria with their children soon after.
He used his brother's passport to leave because his own had been canceled due to his terrorism convictions. It's likely that his family's passports have also been cancelled on security grounds, stranding them in Syria.
Sharrouf's 7-year-old son horrified the world a year ago when he was photographed holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier by the hair. Sharrouf's eldest child was married to Elomar at the age of 13.
Australian police issued arrest warrants for Sharrouf and Elomar on terrorism offenses days after their photos with severed heads emerged.
Sharrouf, a former drug dealer with a history of mental illness, met his wife in high school.
Nettleton's Sydney-based mother Karen Nettleton said in a media statement late Tuesday that her daughter had "followed her heart and has paid an enormous price."
"My daughter has made the mistake of a lifetime," she said. "Today she is a parent alone in a foreign and vicious land looking after a widowed 14-year-old and four other young children."
"Mr. Abbott, I beg you, please help bring my child and grandchildren home," she said.
Asked if he felt for the children, Abbott told Nine Network television: "I suppose at one level, yes."
"But on the other hand, we have to appreciate the scale of the evil which has been practiced here, and that's the thing," Abbott said.
"We will act to protect our country, the safety of our community is the first concern of government," he said.
The government has said that verifying Sharrouf's death would be the first step before any possible talks with the family on repatriation.
But Abbott said that that step had not yet been taken, saying there was a high degree of confidence that Elomar was dead, but "we don't have any such certainty as to the other individual."
Sydney-born Sharrouf, who was also a Lebanese national, was a prime target of legislation introduced to Parliament on Wednesday that would allow terrorists who are dual nationals to be stripped of their Australian citizenship.
Australia will block the return of dual citizens suspected of terrorism based on security advice and deport court-convicted terrorists under new citizenship laws.
The government estimates that up to half of about 120 Australians who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State movement are dual citizens.
The government has also passed contentious new laws that make it a criminal offense to even visit Mosul or the Islamic State movement's Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqa province, where the Sharrouf family was thought to be based.
Sharrouf was among nine Muslim men accused in 2007 of stockpiling bomb-making materials and plotting terrorist attacks in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's largest cities. The ringleader was Elomar's uncle, who is also named Mohamed Elomar.
Sharrouf pleaded guilty in 2009 to charges that he had prepared for a terrorist act and served less than four years in prison.
The government is considering making the proposed citizenship-stripping laws retroactive so that Sharrouf's accomplices in the terrorist plot could be deported once they are released from prison.