An Arab-Israeli couple was arrested last month after returning from a year of living under and fighting for the Islamic State terror group in Iraq with their three children, Israeli security officials said Thursday.
Wissam, 41, and Sabrin Zabidat, 30, from the northern Arab town of Sakhnin, spent over a year with the jihadist group before eventually escaping and making their way back to Israel, the Shin Bet security service said in a statement Thursday as charges were filed against the pair.
Details of the case were permitted for publication as northern district state prosecutors filed indictments against the couple at the Haifa District court on charges of contact with a foreign agent, membership in an outlawed organization, membership in a terrorist group, aiding an illegal group and undergoing unlawful military training.
The couple were arrested at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on September 22 after they returned from Turkey with their children aged 3,6, and 8 after spending over a year with IS, the Shin Bet said in a statement.
During questioning they told investigators that they had decided to join the Islamic State after viewing propaganda material and IS videos.
On June 16, 2015, they flew to Romania with their children to attend a family event. From there, without the knowledge of their extended family members, they continued on to Turkey where they made contact via Facebook with an Arab Israeli in Umm al-Fahm who had joined IS in 2013.
With his assistance they were able to contact smugglers who took them across the border into Syria, where they met up with IS members. Their Israeli passports were immediately confiscated and they were taken to the Syrian city of Raqqa, considered the IS capital.
Wassim was separated from his family and sent to a camp in Iraq, where he was given lessons in religious studies and the IS ideology. From there he was taken to a military camp for training in the use of a Kalashnikov rifle, a PK machine gun and RPG anti-tank launchers, the Shin Bet said.
The husband then took part in IS operations, guarding the group’s facilities near combat zones and participating in raids on Iraqi army posts. During one such raid he was injured in the leg and sent to a hospital in Mosul, Iraq, for treatment.
It was in Mosul that the family was finally reunited, living in cramped, unsanitary conditions without running water or electricity. They told the Shin Bet there wasn’t adequate medical care and they did not have access to medication. Their children did not receive any education for a long period and spent time with other children who were sick with infectious diseases.
At the beginning of 2016, the area where the family was living was badly damaged in heavy bombing. As a result the children suffered anxiety attacks.
According to the Shin Bet release, the Zabidats described local IS fighters and administrators enforcing discriminatory laws, in particular against women, and using cruel methods of punishment such as beheadings, cutting off limbs and lashings.
In Mosul, which is currently the focus of a major Iraqi offensive to free it from two years of IS rule, the couple described rampant poverty, children from age 8 receiving military training, and morality police tasked with, among other things, enforcing dress codes for women and beards for men.
The accounts, which corroborate with other stories of life under IS rule, were apparently released by the Shin Bet to discourage others from trying to join IS after reading online propaganda.
“From investigations of Israelis who returned from Syria and Iraq the… picture emerges of dangers and the difficult living conditions prevailing there,” the statement read.
By June 2016, due to the tough conditions, the Zabidats decided to return to Israel. They contacted family members who paid thousands of dollars to smugglers and others to enable them to make it back to Israel.
They attempted to sneak back into Turkey 10 times, sometimes drugging their youngest daughter to prevent the child from crying and drawing the attention of authorities.
After several abortive attempts to cross the border, including walking through mountainous regions in harsh weather conditions and being shot at by Turkish soldiers and IS fighters, they made it into Turkey, where they were arrested and put in a detention camp.
After a few days they were released and sent back to Israel, where they were arrested on arrival.
Several Arab-Israelis have been arrested and jailed for trying, and in some cases succeeding, in joining IS over the past few years.
IS in Israel does not have widespread support, but the Shin Bet intelligence agency estimates that 50 Arab citizens of Israel have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the group in recent years.
AP contributed to this report