The Morrison government has repeatedly said it remains “determined to deal with these people as far from our shores as possible”.
Save the Children estimates there are more than 2500 foreign children, including offspring of Australians, living in the camps for former IS members in Syria.
In the first in-depth interview with an Australian IS member, carried out in a detention centre in northern Syria, Mr Masri described how he climbed out of a hole he’d dug for his family to shelter in and joined the human corridor leaving the small town during a ceasefire.
Mr Masri, who worked as an airconditioning serviceman in Sydney, claimed he has never killed, assaulted or enslaved anyone. He said he was misled into joining what he now accepts is an evil organisation.
“[I feel] remorseful, regretful. I mean, people make mistakes. And you have to pay the price for your mistake,” Mr Masri said.
“What do I think should happen to me now? Whatever God decrees. I’m accepting of that.
“I would prefer to be prosecuted in Australia or under international law because you have things such as human rights and … justice, so that would be the preferred option.”
Mr Masri insisted he travelled to Syria in January 2015 not as a terrorist but as a misguided devotee of a pure observance of Islam. The validity of his claim relies on being ignorant of IS’s well-known brutality and not believing media reports.
His Sydney-based stepbrother told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age Mr Masri’s decision to join IS was “beyond my understanding.”
“We’re not even a religious family to be honest,” he said.
Mr Masri, from Roselands in Sydney, met and married Australian woman Shayma Assaad in Syria. Her brother, a friend of Mr Masri’s, was killed in Syria.
The couple has three boys, Alae, 3, Dawood, 2 and Umayr, 1. Ms Assad, who is likely in one of the sprawling camps for IS wives and children in Kurdish northern Syria with the boys, is pregnant with their fourth child.
It’s not my kids’ fault. They’re just babies. They don’t even know what life is.
In contrast to the self-generated infamy of the late Khaled Sharrouf, Mr Masri has never posted online about his time in Syria. If brought back to Australia, he would at a minimum face a charge of entering a declared terrorism area – IS’s former capital of al-Raqqa in Syria – which carries a jail term of up to 10 years.
He said he went to live in IS territory because a respected friend told him it was a place where he could start a family and “practice your religion freely”.
He maintains that even after he arrived, he didn’t see much violence. His explanation is that he didn’t go out much.
“I didn’t see the heads on spikes,” he said, referring to the well-known practice in al-Raqqa’s main square.
“I didn’t see any heads or severed bodies and stuff like that. I wasn’t the type of person to be running around the shops too much … and I don’t like to see beheadings. I don’t like to see those sort of scenes. Nor do I agree with it.”
Mr Masri said he worked in a hospital where his trade skills as a fridge and air-conditioning electrician were put to use.
He also defended notorious Australian doctor-turned-jihadist Tareq Kamleh, known as “Dr Jihad”.
“I don’t know if the West is going to like this but he was a gentleman,” he said of Kamleh, who he believes is dead. “[He] made a bit of a crazy video at the end but he was actually a very nice guy and wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
He said what changed his view of IS was not the thuggery but the fact the leadership cut funding to the hospital and barred even private money from upgrading it.
Even though it’s going to be hard for some people to believe … there is a lot of people like me. A lot.
“They didn’t want to see progress. They didn’t want to see the Islamic State move forward. It’s as if they wanted to destroy it within.”
From then, he said, he kept his head down, insisting it was too dangerous to try to escape.
He was “looked down upon” for not fighting, especially at Baghouz, but admitted carrying a Glock pistol, claiming it was for self-defence.
Mr Masri got out of Raqqa before it fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mostly Kurdish army that slowly ground the terrorist military units down with US and coalition help. He said he kept moving with his family down the Euphrates Valley until the last battle at Baghouz.
As well as wanting to face justice in Australia, he’d like his children to be able to live here.
“It’s not my kids’ fault. They’re just babies. They don’t even know what life is,” he said.
Mr Masri argues he is no threat to Australia. Asked how he feels about the country he was born in, he said: “Home. Home. Normal living. Civilised people. Clean streets. People who use their brain. And again, home.”
“I’m an Australian citizen and Australia’s a pretty fair country … And they give people chances, especially if it’s a first offence. I know it’s a big offence, but I’m not someone who’s known to have a criminal record.
“I’m sure … every Australian, everyone in the Parliament, and everyone who makes decisions has made mistakes.
“As an Australian citizen, I think I have that right of being prosecuted in my homeland for any crime that I did.”
It was put to Mr Masri that IS members would claim to be remorseful and downplay their role in the organisation because they’d prefer to be tried in their home countries than left indefinitely in Kurdish detention or handed over to the Syrian regime in Damascus. He responded that he expected to go to jail and added “I don’t expect to be out in a couple of years if I get home”.
While he still has the same notion of Islam now that he had four years ago, he said he holds no ambition for Islamic law to be imposed on the rest of the world.
Asked how he feels towards socially liberal Australians he said, “Good luck to them. It’s their life. They can do what they want.”
And how can Australia know he wouldn’t become part of a sleeper cell?
“I wouldn’t be running from place to place with my family if I was a person who wanted to give up my life for the Islamic State,” he said.
“I would’ve given it up in Baghouz when I had the chance to go and be killed.”
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.