CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A 6-year-old Australian boy photographed making an Islamic State movement salute in front of a human body hanging from a cross somewhere in the Middle East was entitled to return to Australia with his siblings, Australia's prime minister said on Monday.
But such children who returned from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq would be subjected to "the closest attention" to ensure Australians were safe, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
"We will be utterly resolute in keeping Australians safe, and that applies to anyone who returns from the conflict zone, whether they are an adult or a child," Turnbull told reporters.
Australian media on Sunday published the photograph posted on social media by Sydney-born convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf of his youngest child. The smiling boy holds up his right index finger in a salute in front of an apparently lifeless body suspended from a cross with plastic cable ties. A sign hanging from the body said the capital crime was collaborating with Christians.
Sharrouf's Muslim-convert wife Tara Nettleton took their five children from Sydney to Syria to join their father in February 2014.
Nettleton died of surgery complications in September last year, but her mother Karen Nettleton continues to lobby governments for help to bring the children home.
Turnbull criticized Sharrouf, 35, over the picture, saying such behavior demonstrated why Australia is committed to destroying the Islamic State movement.
"The despicable conduct of Khaled Sharrouf in using his child to promote the barbaric, terrorist activities of the organization of which he is part, is almost beyond belief," Turnbull said.
"All of the children that are being exploited in this way, if they are Australian citizens, of course, would be able to return to Australia. But under the closest possible supervision," he added.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin said his officers were working with foreign partners toward prosecuting Sharrouf. The image of the child "says a lot more about Khaled Sharrouf than it does about his children," Colvin said.
Sharrouf horrified the world in 2014 when he posted on social media a photograph of another son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described that image as "one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed."
The U.S. State Department in January announced sanctions against two Australian militants, including Sharrouf.
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.
He pleaded guilty to terrorism offenses in 2009 and served less than four years in prison.