For the past few years the world witnessed individuals and their families from different countries traveling to join the group known as ISIS or Daesh. One estimate is 27,000- 31,000. One of the pressing issues in today’s terrorism debate relates to concerns on how to “process” about eleven thousand foreign women and children now held in precarious conditions as family members of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. Seven thousand of these children are under the age of twelve.
Western countries are not eager to repatriate their ISIS-returned citizens. They are concerned that battlefield information may not translate successfully into evidence that is acceptable in court. It would require dozens of judges, involved in a triage scenario, for multiple hours a day, for months, to deal with the thousands of detained ISIS members in a responsible way. Also, de-radicalization is a very new procedure. We still don’t have much tested data, as to what will work, how and why. We cannot just rush into repatriation using haphazard concepts of deradicalization. In the face of the risk of an attack, repatriation is not a prudent course of action
Meanwhile, Kurdish groups are overwhelmed by the effort and cost of maintaining these prison areas while foreign nations with greater resources have not provided support. It is a disastrous situation and worsening the already dire condition of these areas of Iraq and Syria.
Canada faces its own specific challenges with repatriation, due to its legal system. The numbers: an estimated 250 Canadians travelled to join non-ISIS groups, and 60 from this category have already returned. None of them has been charged in a Canadian court. This is an affront to the Syrian and Yazidi refugees that Canada has taken in and sends the wrong message to the larger public. It is also, of course, an argument against repatriation.
What of Canadian citizens’ right of return? Ralph Goodale, Canada’s minister of public safety, says the captured ISIS members “have a constitutional right to re-enter the country, but the government of Canada does not have a legal obligation to facilitate their return.”
Meanwhile, of the 90-100 Canadians who travelled to join ISIS and have not returned, most have been killed or are otherwise unaccounted for, with only six Canadian adult male ISIS detainees in Kurdish prisons. I will argue here that for Canada – unlike the US – the benefits of repatriation are outweighed by the risk and cost.
ISIS members will mainly not be charged and/prosecuted, just released into a surveillance scenario for an unknown period, in which security services accused by some of being derelict in their duty in preventing ISIS members from travel in the first place – will be expected to prevent them now from committing future terrorist attacks. This is unreasonable for the public to have to accept as an option, not to mention the considerable cost involved.
This issue is very close to my heart. I am not only Canadian but a former supporter of the global jihadist culture. Born and raised in Canada, I was a supporter of the jihadist cause between 1995-2001 with aspirations of being a foreign fighter. However, I did not engage in violence. I did engage in proselytizing and recruiting. The 9/11 attacks made me reconsider my views and I spent two years formally studying Arabic and Islamic Studies in Syria (2002-2004) where I went through an organic and natural deradicalization process (I was not in a custodial setting as ISIS members today). I came to change my views completely, not simply “disengage” where an individual may not act out, but still retains the ideology.
Upon returning to Canada in 2004, I became a “walk-in” to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and participated in undercover infiltration operations online and on the ground. In 2006, I transitioned to Police Agent and worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a complex case with the “Toronto 18” terror suspects. I was the primary fact witness in five legal hearings at the Superior Court of Ontario, stretched over four years. The RCMP arrested eighteen aspiring violent extremists: eleven were convicted and for seven of them, the government opted not to continue prosecuting. I obtained a Master of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism during this time, and maintained a very public social media presence once the criminal prosecution of the “Toronto 18” concluded in 2010. After the cases were all concluded, I was a regular civilian citizen.
In 2012 when the issue of ISIS travelers became a major security concern. I suddenly found myself in the middle of a social media boom, and interacted with numerous ISIS members online, including some high-profile members who were eventually targeted by Coalition forces. I embarked on an experimental counter messaging effort, spanning 2012 to 2017. In this time, I briefed U.S. Command Staff, the UN Security Council, and UN high-level discussions on youth radicalization. I discussed logistical details of the ISIS returnee threat with professionals who were directly tasked in specialized counter terrorism units, from eighty different countries.
It is from this collective experience and access to information and opinions that I will try to make my case that for the Canadian context, repatriation should be resisted. In the event a legal obligation to repatriate Canadian citizens is accepted by government, I have given a few thoughts on how to manage such a process.
So, where an individual that attempts to leave to join a terrorist group, “support” is defined by the person’s intended presence and involvement and having taken steps to do so.”
Meanwhile, for the US, repatriation should be pursued as the likelihood of conviction is higher, and the sentences given are more appropriate in terms of the punitive aspect. In the US, one of the most powerful legal weapons against terrorists is the “Material Support” charge, a wide-net legal catchment mechanism that allows a broad range of actions it classifies as “support,” and omits the need for stricter definitions related to criminality. It relates to any support or resources or concealment and disguises of the nature, location, source, or ownership of said materials and/or resources, knowing or intending they are to be used in preparation for, or for carrying out, a terrorist act. So, where an individual that attempts to leave to join a terrorist group, “support” is defined by the person’s intended presence and involvement and having taken steps to do so. Getting on a train to go to the airport to join ISIS is exactly that, and some young Americans have been caught up in this category of charges.
ISIS Repatriation in the US
We can break down American ISIS-related prosecutions into the following categories:
- ISIS supporters who were stopped before they traveled to join ISIS
- ISIS supporters who acted in the U.S.
- American ISIS members who were repatriated from overseas
The best database belongs to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. It includes 194 individuals charged since 2014 when charges were first laid for ISIS related offences. (This represents only 0.00006% of the Muslim population in the US, by the way.) Of those charged, 143 were either found guilty or plead guilty. Almost half of these arrests were related to attempts to travel to join ISIS. The average sentence for ISIS members in #1 and #2 is thirteen and a half years.
As for true “returnees,” according to Seamus Hughes of the Program on Extremism, the U.S. numbers are as follows:
- Three hundred American citizens attempted to or successfully traveled to join jihadist movements in Syria or Iraq. Of these, 82 successfully traveled. Others are presumed killed or otherwise unaccounted for.
- Eighteen adults returned to the U.S.: thirteen men and five women. At least thirteen children have also returned.
- Of the men, two men were not charged, and one, Moner Abu Salih, was able to go to Syria (Al Qaeda group) initially, return to the U.S., travel again and end up dying in a suicide mission.
- Of the five women: two charged and three not charged
What is clear here also, is that the decision to press charges is on a case by case basis, as other high-profile (failed) repatriation attempts have shown. For Canada, in the event repatriation occurs, this same kind of discretionary approach and a case-by-case basis will be a necessary response.
ISIS Repatriation in Canada
The Canadian government statistics on how many citizens traveled to join ISIS appear confusing at first glance but this is due to two sets of numbers: those who went to join non-ISIS groups and those who joined Al Qaeda and ISIS specifically. As the latest numbers indicate of the first set, two hundred and fifty Canadians traveled overseas to various places known for extremist activity. One hundred and ninety are still abroad, with many likely dead.
About 90 or 100 of the 250 left Canada to join extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. Currently, there are thirty three Canadians in Kurdish custody (six men, nine women, and eighteen children) yet not a single adult from this group of detainees has been charged by the Canadian government. This is likely due to their concern that laying of charges serves to acknowledge legal obligation and thus, forces repatriation. Another challenge is that some Canadians are held by the YPG, a Kurdish group listed as a terrorist organization and of course, Canada has no diplomatic relations in this context. If the YPG decide they cannot detain these members any longer, it may force Canada’s hand.
In theory, there are indeed offences ISIS members with Canadian citizenship can be charged with such as some terrorism charges as well as offences under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. There is a government plan (on paper) in place should Canadian ISIS members return. Canada does not strip citizenship as the U.K. does, and Canadian ISIS members have a right of return. However, the challenge of prosecution is related to what evidence can be presented and which carries a reasonable likelihood of conviction. Simple charges related to leaving Canada to join a terrorist group are theoretically easier to prove but sentencing could vary and may not carry an appropriate measure of punishment. Compare that to the charges of war crimes, which is more difficult to prove, given that evidence of these acts remains in Iraq and Syria. If convicted however, the sentences are severe.
One Canadian expert has been working to obtain evidence that will stand up in court, using what is termed OSINT (Open Source Intelligence). Using sophisticated software and personal acumen, analysts at iBrabo worked to uncover a mass grave site with numerous human remains. This site is related to a Canadian citizen, Mohammed Khalifa, who appeared in a 2014 ISIS video as an executioner (a section on him appears later in this article). Using data from the images, iBrabo analysts were able to identify and locate the exact site. Forensic teams are already beginning to catalogue the hundreds of human remains at multiple sites in the same area of Raqqah, Syria but there is a concern about the chain of custody of evidence. If there is any serious breach or lack of competency, the courts could dismiss the evidence completely.
Canadian Cases of ISIS Returnees
2019: “Abu Huzaifa Al Kanadi” (real name is withheld as this is an active police investigation)
This is a case I worked on personally. In 2018, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times’ podcast “Caliphate,” featured a young man whose email she discovered as part of a trove of emails of ISIS foreign fighters. In an interview with her, he admitted to being a member of ISIS’ police (Hisbah) and confessed to murdering at least two people. Rukmini passed on his contact information to me, in the hopes he could be counseled and maybe even deradicalized. Over the next year and half I met with him or talked to him at least once a week. I thought that by facilitating an interview with the CBC, I could move the topic of ISIS member deradicalization further because until his case, all such discussions were being conducted in the abstract. I would come to regret my decision and my involvement overall.
As the date for the release of the “Caliphate” podcast neared, “Abu Huzaifa” drew increasingly anxious. Once I heard the podcast, I strongly encouraged him to get a lawyer so that he could enter into a formal rehabilitation program but he refused. Our relationship became acrimonious. My time with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service taught me to be skeptical overall and in the back of my mind, I was prepared for the prospect of this individual feeding me what he thought I wanted to hear, to declare him deradicalized and allow him to get off without any real censure. This is exactly what he was doing, and he succeeded.
I spoke with investigators from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, and encouraged them to bring him in on a Peace Bond. It is used where an individual (the defendant) appears likely to commit a criminal offence, but there are no reasonable grounds to believe that an offence has actually been committed. The RCMP refused. Abu Huzaifa claims he has been in an RCMP-supervised “deradicalization program,” but his recent admissions show that he is dismissive of this effort and is likely stringing them along.
Shortly after the media coverage and the RCMP’s inability to bring any form of legal process against him, Abu Huzaifa bragged that he was still a “soldier of the Islamic State” and how “the kuffaar (derogatory term for non-Muslims) can’t touch me.” He was also filmed bragging how, “I am scarier than them,” referring to ISIS members who are in Kurdish custody and could return and that, “I know I got off scot free.” This duplicitous nature of Abu Huzaifa also shows – as I had gathered from my years of direct interaction with ISIS members – that ISIS members are well aware of the option of deradicalization as a way to have their respective countries allow them back in, with a strategic outlook of still being able to be active members of the group. Today, Abu Huzaifa attends a Canadian university and also remains an open member of ISIS, and staff and students on campus are none the wiser.
This case shows that deradicalization is not a magic bullet and not everyone is a good candidate for it. Some ISIS members will withhold and falsify information, to escape and evade punishment. It also shows a need for extreme caution when conducting these assessments, as deradicalization must be a willing endeavour and cannot be forced. Furthermore, it shows precisely what ISIS members think of not being charged, and only seeks to reinforce their ideology and commitment to the group. Lastly, it indicates that police face a difficult choice in deciding not to lay charges, where they may feel conviction or censure is unlikely and a surveillance scenario becomes the only option. In such a case where an individual could “go off” at any time, the smallest mistake by security services, would be catastrophic for the public should an attack succeed. The danger here is very great. Thus, repatriation should be resisted.
2015-2017 – Sabrine Djermane and El Mahdi Jamali
This is a case of two young Montrealers, who claimed they were going to Greece for vacation. The RCMP believed it to be a cover to go travel to join ISIS and charged them accordingly. The relevant charges were as follows:
- Attempting to leave Canada to commit a terrorist act
- Possession of an explosive substance
- Committing an act under the direction of, or for the profit of, a terrorist organization
Evidence was presented during the trial that RCMP Officers discovered a recipe for a pressure-cooker bomb, complete with ingredients including matches, clock, and nails. Djermane was acquitted of all charges. Jamali was found guilty of one of three charges related to possession of an explosive device.
However, there was also an issue related to conditions they had to abide by under a Peace Bond. This included prohibitions on using social media and avoiding a controversial mosque where a known radical was preaching. It is unknown if they have abided by these conditions but should they re-offend, the Peace Bond will be revoked and they can be imprisoned.
This case shows that young couples trying to join ISIS under cover of going on a marriage and/or vacation trip, is not new. It also shows that charges related to travel are not as easy to prove and are not a given. Only one charge related to possession of an explosive device was successful, but Ms. Djermane escaped all charges completely. Granted, these are not individuals in foreign custody, and so charges may be easier to prove with those who are currently in detention by Kurdish groups overseas, but it does show how difficult such prosecutions can be.
Arrested February, 2016 – Ismael Habib
Mr. Habib – then 29 – was the first adult to be successfully tried under the “Attempt to leave Canada to commit a terrorist act” charge. He was found guilty of “providing false information to obtain a passport” and was sentenced to nine years in prison, one of the higher prison sentences awarded by a Canadian court for this kind of prosecution.
A glimmer of hope, this case shows that significant sentences can be meted out to ISIS members. However, he had committed some violent offences previously, which may explain why the sentence was nine years.
2014 –traveled to try to join ISIS – Pamir Hakimzadah
In 2014, Mr. Hakimzadah boarded a flight to Turkey with intentions of joining ISIS. He revealed his plans to a Turkish taxi driver who promptly reported him to the police. He was deported back to Canada and charged and found guilty as Habib was, of one count of, “Leaving Canada to participate in activity of terrorist group.”
He plead guilty and served two thirds of his sentence and was released. He was given three years of probation and required to get deradicalization counselling but I confirmed that in fact, he has not been receiving any such counseling and media reports to the contrary are incorrect.
Arrested June 2017 – Rehab Dughmosh
This female member of ISIS attempted to travel to join the group, but her brother reported her to Canadian police. Instead of preventing her departure from Canada, the RCMP notified the Turkish authorities, who refused her entry and deported her back to Canada. The file was closed. On June 3, 2017 in Scarborough, the eastern part of Toronto, she assembled a bag of bizarre and real home-made weapons, proceeded to a local hardware chain called Canadian Tire, and attacked people using a golf club and butcher knife. She was wrestled to the ground and police were called. She was given a seven-year sentence.
2015 – Unnamed/Unidentified Quebec teenagers
In early 2015, a number of teenagers from a Quebec high school also left Canada and successfully joined ISIS under suspicion of being radicalized by a known extremist sympathizer. Some of them are now in custody with Kurdish groups. There was a second group who also attempted to go but were stopped by police and not charged. Some of them participated in the counseling services that I was a small part of personally, made available at the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence. This Centre is one of the best in the country, using rapport-based counseling and professional researchers to maintain an evidence-based approach to deradicalization.
Some other high-profile potential ISIS Returnees
2014 – Present: John Letts
A British-born Muslim convert of dual British and Canadian citizenship, Jack Letts traveled to Syria in 2014 to join ISIS. He denied any such ISIS links but was photographed in ISIS territory in 2015, and it is impossible for any foreigner to be in ISIS territory without having given allegiance to the group. Between 2015 and 2016, Lett’s parents were sending him money, and the parents were ultimately charged and convicted of funding terrorism. In a 2017 prison interview, he claimed he was escaping ISIS but it seems he was simply escaping an area that ISIS had lost to Coalition bombings. By 2019, the British government revoked his citizenship, leaving him the responsibility of Canada, a development which the Canadian government protested.
The case of Jack Letts is not dissimilar to other cases of Canadians who joined ISIS and who now want to return to their countries of citizenship. Jack had already disavowed Britain and any other country based on man-made laws, a frequent practice by Islamists and terrorists. He expressed interest in coming back to Canada now that it is his only option. According to a 2019 survey, 70% of Canadians support stripping ISIS fighters of their Canadian citizenship.
What this shows is that the pressure on governments by their citizens to not repatriate suspected ISIS fighters must be measured against the pressure on them by state actors in the region to take their citizens back. This will remain an issue until a clear decision is made, and repatriation may still not be a realistic option for Mr. Letts anytime soon.
2014 – Present: Muhammed Ali
A resident of Mississauga, Canada, Mr. Ali left Canada in 2014 to join ISIS. He was a very prolific recruiter and social media voice for ISIS online as well as having claimed to be a sniper. He was attempting to cross into Turkey to return to Canada when he was caught by Kurdish forces. He was with his wife and two children. He appeared in an interview expressing remorse and his desire to return to Canada to, “live a normal life.”
Unlike other ISIS members, he has expressed some remorse, but it is hard to know if the sentiment is a sincere one or just one that expresses his current condition in a Kurdish prison. This case shows that serious crimes which were committed by this individual may not be adequately punished because no investigation into these crimes has been done by the RCMP. How can proponents of repatriation make the argument to prosecute them when there are not even charges to begin with?
2013-Present: Mohammed Khalifa aka “Abu Ridwan”
In the summer of 2013, after graduating from a Canadian college, Mr. Khalifa traveled to join ISIS in Syria and due to his knowledge of Arabic and English was put to use in the ISIS media department. He appeared in disguise as an executioner in a video in which individuals were shot in the back of the head and dumped into a mass grave. He also appeared as the narrator in an ISIS propaganda video called Flames of War. In 2019, he was captured by the Kurds along with many others who fled Baghouz, the site of ISIS’ last stand.
Recently, he gave an interview in which he expressed his desire to come home with his family but refused to be tried by man-made Canadian laws, opting instead for Shariah Law as his preferred legal code. He openly expresses support for ISIS, and refuses to renounce any of the ideology. There can only be two options for him: remain in Kurdish custody with the prospect of being sent to Iraq for certain execution or, to face prosecution for war crimes as he is alleged to have been involved in. Again, prosecution is easier said than done, especially in war crimes cases and if there is no guarantee that he will get life in prison, what would be the point to repatriate him?
Related Canadian Cases that went very wrong
2014 – Martin Couture-Rouleau aka “Ahmad the Convert”
Converted to an extremist version of Islam in 2013, by 2014 “Ahmad the Convert” (as his social media moniker) wanted to join some extremist Islamist group, whether ISIS or otherwise. He was stopped, prevented from traveling and his passport was seized but he was surprisingly not charged, given what was already known of the threat he represented.
Mr. Couture-Rouleau played his game well with the authorities, even agreeing to see an Imam for religious counseling purposes. It would eventually turn out that he was deceiving the Imam, feeding him exactly what he thought the Imam (and the police) wanted to hear. Likely agitated that he could not travel, and consistent with the ISIS direction that if one is prevented from traveling, they should attack whatever country they live in, he committed an attack in Canada on Oct. 20, 2014. He waited in his car in a shopping centre parking lot and then rapidly accelerated and struck two uniformed members of the Canadian Forces, killing one. He then fled the scene, and again per the ISIS rulebook, called 9-1-1, declared his allegiance to ISIS and stated that the attack was done in the name of Allah. A police chase ensued, his vehicle lost control and crashed. Still, Couture-Rouleau exited the car, charged a police officer with a large knife, and was dealt with by lethal force.
How could this happen? Were there not enough warning signs prior to this to know the high risk which was associated with Mr. Couture-Rouleau? Police suggest that they could not charge him as he did not break the law, but what’s needed is understanding nuances regarding deception and how to assess ISIS members accordingly. This was a preventable attack, if observers had known how to identity these signs.
2016 – Aaron Driver
Aaron Driver was the son of a retired Officer of the Canadian Forces. After the death of his mother, Mr. Driver (senior) attested that “the lights went out” in his son and so began a spiral into truancy. His condition improved after converting to Islam but he fell into extremism. Following the Oct. 22, 2014 attacks at the Canadian Parliament by a mentally-ill attacker who proclaimed on video the attack was in revenge for Afghanistan and Iraq, Driver publicly stated that Canada deserved it because of its involvement in the war on terror.
Politicians were incensed that this young man could so brazenly and openly promote these ideas without any legal sanction of any kind. In fact, he had not broken any laws but the Peace Bond mechanism was implemented, and Aaron Driver was ordered to abide by a long list of conditions. Experts whom the government had consulted, testified in court that Mr. Driver did not pose a serious threat, his talk was just that, talk. Conditions such as restrictions on social media presence, was similarly contested by the experts, suggesting that removing him so abruptly could radicalize him further, notwithstanding that his online activities already formed part of his radicalization process into violence. Even the condition that he receive religious counseling was interpreted by his defense lawyer as the imposition of religious practice by a secular court, and any option of deradicalization, rejected.
Mr. Driver used his ability to go online and to travel freely and prepare an explosive device for detonation at a London, Ontario location. Appearing with his face obscured, he released a video statement online which was intercepted by the FBI, who notified the RCMP, and a frantic effort to locate Mr. Driver began. When RCMP Emergency Response Teams did find him, he had just entered a taxi which had arrived in his sister’s driveway and upon seeing the tactical unit, detonated one of his devices in the taxi, lightly injuring the driver. Police were forced to engage him using lethal force, and Mr. Driver was killed.
This illustrates is that the general risk related to these individuals – whether they are ISIS members of otherwise – is rightfully perceived as high, and that a slight misstep by authorities runs the real risk of allowing an attack to happen. This case also questions how some professionals associate risk to such threats, especially where an ideology is involved. This is one reason why it is necessary for larger institutions to work with “Formers” – previous supporters or members of violent extremist groups who now engage in counter extremism – in order to have the best understanding of the nuances of the extremist mindset. The practitioner who has years of direct, participatory experience in such groups, will understand those nuances better and arrive at a more accurate assessment based on a trained eye.
Other Arguments for and against Canadian Repatriation
The ISIS Children
There are about 1300 children of Western ISIS members in Kurdish prison camps, and relatively few of those orphaned or otherwise with one parent or family still back in France and Belgium have been repatriated. As a father of five children, I am deeply saddened by the conditions that children of ISIS members have to live in. How do we manage this complex challenge? Do we acquiesce and allow the parents to demand repatriation by using their children as hostages because we are sympathetic? Do we repatriate them to our countries, only to revoke custody of the children? Doesn’t this just make it even worse and provide ISIS with yet another grievance?
Canada should definitely repatriate children of ISIS members; they are innocent and should not be punished for the crimes of their parents. The journey towards rehabilitation will be a long one for these children and the effects of the mental health stress on them will warrant attention for many years to come. There are a few organizations in Canada which can in fact adequately care for these children. However, ISIS members should not be allowed to use their children as hostages, demanding they too be repatriated. There should be Family Court hearings regarding the revocation of custody where it is deemed appropriate. Family members or even Muslim foster homes should be engaged when needed to take up the care of these innocents.
It’s worth noting that Belgian authorities have established clinics to conduct assessments and to provide care for these children. In Germany, one lower court ruling was made in support of a German citizen’s wife and three children to be repatriated but this is still making its way through the courts and is under appeal.
ISIS Detainees may face the Death Penalty Overseas
The state with primary legal jurisdiction – given that ISIS is originally an Iraqi group – is the country of Iraq. Some proponents of repatriation reject this right, because Iraq’s legal process falls short of the standards used in Western countries, especially where execution is the usual sentence.
We regularly tell people that they are responsible for the crimes they commit in foreign lands and are subject to local laws in this regard. It is the height of arrogance for us to be telling those countries who they can or cannot prosecute, especially where war crimes, mass rape and murder have been committed. Neither can we expect all countries to adhere to our level of legal process. Will we now declare criminals operating in their country, protected from local prosecution? This undermines the entire sovereignty argument for that country, and if applied to us, would be very dangerous as well. Unfortunately, we cannot simply decide their systems as invalid in this regard. You commit a crime in their country, you face their justice system.
Arguments that suggest ISIS will capitalize on the fact that its abandoned women and children are being held without any assistance, misses the point that ISIS doesn’t care about them at all except to use them as pawns in narrative warfare. Moreover, the argument that these Kurdish prison camps are “creating the next generation of ISIS,” misses the other point that ISIS has been doing this already for every year it spent running its so-called Caliphate. There is no chance these people can be “re radicalized” because they have not deradicalized in the first place. This attempt to guilt-trip the West is actually doing the job of ISIS in attempting to portray them all as victims of the West without any sense of responsibility for their own actions.
A third argument is that Canada could be subject to lawsuits by these ISIS members but again, this confuses two separate issues: 1) where the government sends someone to be tortured in a foreign country, and 2) those Canadians who have gone of their own accord to torture others in foreign lands. It is hard to see how there is any legal footing for such a claim.
If the Decision not to Repatriate leads to ISIS Fighters being freed
If freed, those still devoted to ISIS could reconnect with cells, pay smugglers to help them reach Europe and engage in further terrorist activity such as financing, recruitment, radicalization and, of course, terrorist attacks. Individuals with ISIS experience would be an asset by a terrorist cell – not only for their propaganda value but for the skills they could bring to bear on an attack.
The problem with this argument is it fails to consider the situation ISIS members find themselves in. These ISIS members would have to get past Iraqi forces and Shia militias and also coalition forces, which seems highly improbable. If they do in fact pose such a threat, how will Canada be able to prevent them from doing the very same things in country which we fear them doing elsewhere, especially where they are not even being charged? To promote repatriation – where it is known charges may not be likely – is literally to import the threat into the country. This is enough to proceed with caution.
They radicalized in Canada, and security agencies failed to prevent them from traveling abroad. To expect civilians whose country was terrorized by ISIS to take responsibility for our citizens, and to ask that they please do so in accordance with their international human-rights obligations is to shirk our responsibilities as a nation.
There are two major flaws with this argument. First, just because they radicalized in Canada, does not mean we are responsible or to blame for their choices they made as adults. Second, and simply absurd, Canadian security agencies were not derelict in their duty to prevent ISIS members from leaving. In fact, they did what they could since many of these individuals did not telegraph their intent to want to travel abroad and in fact, deceived close friends and family members, already had valid passports or tried to obtain them fraudulently.
What should happen to ISIS Prisoners
1) Prosecution in International Tribunal
The International Criminal Court has already declined to prosecute ISIS members, as it does not have the jurisdiction to do so and gives first right of response to the nation state where the crimes occurred. Sweden has begun efforts to mobilize various nations to establish a special tribunal based in Iraq, with a first meeting in June, but the initiative has been criticized by the Open Society Justice Initiative and other NGOs for focussing exclusively on the atrocities of one side.
Canada should assist in this effort in support of a mechanism that is fair and just, but also looks to punishing ISIS members for their horrendous crimes with sentences that are appropriate. Rushing to repatriate these individuals is not smart, and a whole battery of assessments need to be done of the adults, adolescents, and children too. These things do not happen overnight, and we must let the process take its time.
2) Prosecution by Iraqi government
I would suggest that Iraq’s authorities be assisted in bringing their handling of ISIS cases up to international legal standards. Observers and Advisors can also be sent to ensure trials are fair and this will both enhance their ability to continue such prosecutions and also uphold international norms of justice practice. Canada – which opposes the death penalty – could convince Iraqi authorities not to execute Canadian citizens but instead, imprison them and possibly assist with financial support where required. This follows what is common sense: you will face the penalty in the country where you committed your crimes.
3) Continued Detention by Kurdish Groups
Canada and other countries could assist the Kurds by helping them manage the cost of detention, including provision of medical services like the Belgian clinics set up by the Belgian government. They could also begin to process the children as well. Teams of experts could be sent in right now to begin this processing and start establishing a baseline of effort in this regard. Why split these detainees up and send them off to different legal systems where the triage abilities are different and do not operate under any standardized process? It makes sense to start this right now and not suddenly and haphazardly begin repatriating them.
If Canada is forced to repatriate “Hight Risk Returnees”
ISIS members must not be given a free ride back to the country of origin only to likely be let go without charges. Canada has taken in thousands of Syrian refugees, including from the Yazidi people who were subject to horrific abuse including sexual assaults as well as the kidnapping of children who were then brainwashed into serving ISIS. Imagine repatriating these ISIS members for these vulnerable populations to have to see in the street or in some public setting? What an abject failure it would be of the Canadian system.
One response is that while it is true these ISIS members would not be charged; they could then be subject to surveillance activities by the intelligence service and/or the police. For how long and at what cost? Security agencies are already stretched thin and allocating up to fifteen surveillants for one target (as a reasonable estimate), over one year, reaches a cost in excess of $1 million. This does not even include the costs of rehabilitation. Ironically, those that have accused the security services of being derelict in duty are now suggesting these same services undertake this project too.
Assuming that Canada is forced to repatriate, I suggest the following courses of action:
- Proper threat assessments, conducted by individuals with prior experiences in face-to-face dealings with extremists, not just by intelligence officers or police officers but also by Imams and other practitioners with experience.
- Charging where possible, and a robust security response package for those we cannot charge, including attempts to bring them under voluntary mechanisms of cooperation.
- Appropriate counseling which acknowledges the role of ideology as one factor among others.
- Appropriate sentencing which reflects the severity of the offences committed, based on a triage assessment of candidates.
- Preparation for and participation in, counter-extremism messaging while in custody or if not in custody, under a voluntary mechanism.
- Strong support for child victims including revocation of custody where deemed in best interest of child and engaging with family-oriented organizations such as Parents For Peace and others.
- Engaging vetted Muslim organizations with practical competencies, not activist groups or political entities.
One of the best ways to repudiate ISIS, will be through public trials of ISIS members, assuming they are going to be charged to begin with. Therefore, it is imperative that as much evidence can be collected as possible, by government as well as external, independent experts. On the other hand, bringing up ISIS in the media over and over, as these trials will take a long time to wind their way through the Courts, will be stressful for the public and will undoubtedly and adversely impact the mental health of Canadians to have to hear details of what ISIS did and what its members participated in, again and again. We have already had seven years of it and dragging this out even more so, is an undesirable, albeit necessary effort.
Public trials will be very helpful in being a deterrent for other disaffected Muslim youth, that such behaviours are completely rejected in multicultural society and will cause the perpetrator to be completely shunned. More involvement by Muslim organizations to engage youth will also be helpful as ISIS members will eventually be freed and will require a community into which to reintegrate.
The reality for Canada based on what we have seen so far, is that most ISIS returnees are in fact not being charged. As we have learned, the “Material Support” charge used in the U.S. allows a broad ability to prosecute successfully in this regard. It follows then that in the interest of the reputation of government and also our legal system, repatriation of Canadian ISIS returnees be resisted as the likelihood of prosecution and of sentences reflecting the severity of the crime is very much an open question.
As the case of Martin Couture-Roleau shows, even Imams can be deceived when it comes to “deradicalization.” It is not an automatic process that applies to anyone and everyone and some are not good candidates in this regard. Counseling is easily compromised by deception by the radicalized individual, especially where ISIS members have openly discussed implementing this in deradicalization scenarios. As the case of Abu Huzaifa showed, not being charged can be taken as a victory by ISIS members, and reinforces to them that they are untouchable by Western laws. This does nothing to dissuade them from their views and only serves to reinforce the ideology that drives them to begin with. It also shows them that ultimately, the West cannot truly “bring them to justice.”
Where the prospect of not being charged is so real, this undermines the reputation of the system overall and sends the wrong message to individuals who would commit crimes outside of Canada. It tells them they are protected from prosecution in certain crimes because we don’t acknowledge foreign country jurisdiction where punishments for such crimes in their lands is severe. It tells them that we are unable to adequately punish them and that our laws are worthless, which reinforces what they already believe of Canadian laws.
As a last resort, if Canada is forced to repatriate, thankfully we do not have the numbers of detainees that other countries do and I do believe Canada could theoretically manage six men, nine women, and seventeen children in an experimental reintegration program, but only as a last resort. It remains to be seen which option is more economical but cost alone should not be the deciding factor, as we have a duty to the public to uphold the integrity of our system. Time will tell if we got it right in the end but it will require strict adherence to some or all the options I have put forward. This is a very new situation that we face and is still very much in flux. This will require commitment from communities as well as investment by government and the road to rehabilitation will be a long and arduous one especially for the children.