The fashion model’s death wasn’t foretold—at least not from his portfolio photographs showing a handsome young man of Somali descent wearing a patterned fedora jauntily tipped forward. In other pictures he is shown wearing a multi-colored scarf and green cargo pants and there are photographs of him posing on an Australian beach—all a far cry from the horrors of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, from the beheadings and suicide bombings and the slaughter.
On Wednesday night the family of model-turned-jihadist Sharky Jama confirmed that the young Melbourne man, who friends say had so much potential and so much to live for, had been killed in Syria while fighting alongside militants of the so-called Islamic State.
More than 90 Australians are estimated to have joined the terror group, but of all of the jihadist recruits from Down Under, it is Sharky Jama’s enlistment—and his death—that is provoking the most soul-searching, bewilderment and anger.
The parents of the 25-year-old, who left for the Mideast last August along with another Somali-Australian, a business student, were informed of their son’s death via a text message and phone call earlier this week. Speaking to a local radio station last night, the father of the model-turned-jihadist, Dada Jama, said he only believed the news when he tried to call his son's phone and it went straight to voicemail. He plans now to talk with local Somali community leaders to warn against the radicalization of their youngsters.
More than a hundred Australians merely suspected of wanting to join the Islamic State or other jihadist groups in the Mideast have had their passports canceled by the government.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs says it can’t confirm Sharky’s death because it has limited capacity to do so. “Due to the extremely dangerous security situation, consular assistance is no longer available within Syria,” the ministry said in a statement. But the country’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, lashed out in a news conference Thursday describing the Islamic State as “just about death” and not religion.
“My very simple message to anyone considering joining these groups is: Don’t,” Abbott said. “They are death cults. They are not about religion, they are just about death, and it is just as likely to be your death as anyone else’s. If you go overseas for this kind of purpose, you are a danger to others, you are a danger to yourself,” he said. “Don’t do it.”
Members of Melbourne’s Somali community say they are shocked by the reports of Sharky’s death. Hussein Haraco, a community leader and longtime friend of the Jama family, told local reporters that no one knew why Sharky had decided to join the self-styled Islamic State, widely known as ISIS. He is understood to have first gone to the Iraqi city of Fallujah and then moved on to the ISIS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.
“They haven’t got any idea what is the reason,” Haraco said. “He was just a young man playing soccer…and suddenly something happened and he went to Syria. [It’s] really shocking for the whole community and we are really confused. They’re very shocked and very disappointed.”
The confusion is shared by other parents of Western jihadist recruits as they try to piece together the reasons for their kids’ recruitment. The themes of disaffection and alienation often run in the life stories of the recruits to the would be caliphate—there are as many as 6,000 foreign fighters from Western countries in Syria and Iraq. But there are also a lot of dissimilarities in their histories. The recruits from Britain and Australia have often been achievers, educated, sometimes at university, and either in work or with good prospects for work.
French and Belgian recruits seem more often to come from the wrong side of the tracks with poorer and less educated backgrounds and dim work prospects. Petty crime is often a feature of their pre-jihadist histories.
While Sharky Jama’s photographs didn’t foretell his death, once he had decided to join ISIS, the chances were high he would die. ISIS works hard to recruit such gullible young men, then treats them as expendable. Sharky is the 21st Australian jihadist recruit to have been killed out of the 90 or so who have gone so far. Melbourne teenager Jake Bilardi, who joined the Islamic State last August, is believed to have died in a suicide bombing in the Iraqi city of Ramadi last month.
The former model’s cousins posted tributes on Facebook yesterday: “To my beautiful cousin, the lessons learnt in your presence where priceless in any capacity the childhood memories we shared invaluable you’ll be greatly missed for you where great in every shade of light,” one said.
Somali-Australians are now calling on their government to beef up its scrutiny of young men and women flying out of Australia.