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Returning fighters Part I: See no evil 

The first part of this series by Casey Brunelle introduces the issue of ISIS members – both frontline combatants and support personnel – returning, or seeking to return, to Western countries, specifically Canada. A second feature will explore the political, legal, and security implications of the issue in the broader scope of global violent extremism.

Even when the militant Salafi jihadist group known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh) was at the height of its power in spring 2015, both its leadership in Raqqa and governments in the West were likely to have known that the group’s prominence as a contiguous proto-state (illegitimate as it may have been) was fundamentally limited in time and space.

With the full force of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the US-led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) on one side, the Russia and Iran-backed Syrian Armed Forces on the other, as well as the Free Syrian Army, competing Islamist militant groups, and universal rejection from the global Ummah (Islamic community), ISIS – as a violent extremist group, an ideology, and a unique spin on contemporary global terrorism – has been in a downward spiral since even before it declared itself to be a so-called caliphate. As of January 2019, the group controls only 0.1 per cent of Syria’s territory and, by the time of publication, it is possible that the operational phase of the siege of its final stronghold in Al-Baghuz Fawqani by the SDF will be all but complete.

And yet it seems to only have been recently that governments in the West (certainly some more than others) are dwelling on the question of what to do with those respective citizens who knowingly and willingly abandoned their native countries to infiltrate Syria (often through Turkey) with the explicit goal of fighting for, or explicitly supporting, ISIS.

While military forces, security services, and many pertinent agencies at national and international level have been warning of this issue for several years, many politicians seem to be only dwelling on this, now that some high-profile cases have made their way into the mass media.

One such case involves 19-year-old Shamima Begum, a schoolgirl who fled Bethnal Green in east London, UK, in 2015 for Syria, when ISIS was at the height of its power. Having requested to marry an English-speaking fighter aged between 20 and 25, Begum married a Dutch ISIS fighter (who surrendered to the SDF last week) and lost two of her infant children, purportedly due to malnutrition and a lack of basic healthcare. Begum maintains that she has no regrets in joining the group, but as she is has now given birth, she is hoping to return to the UK soon. One reason is for better access to healthcare. In response, UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid stated that Begum and others who had travelled abroad to join ISIS were: “Full of hate for our country,” and that he would: “Not hesitate,” to prevent her from re-entering the UK. Campaigners retorted that the Home Secretary’s comments were: “Cruel and devoid of any moral obligations as (he) is deliberately trying to discharge himself and this country of any responsibility for this young vulnerable British woman.” As Begum has only UK citizenship, any move to revoke that would be contrary to international law, which prohibits rendering citizens stateless (although some states, namely Australia, have sought to combat this stance).

In the Canadian context, there are several prominent case studies that come to mind. One that is relevant to the current Trudeau administration’s position is that of former al-Qaeda fighter and bomb-maker Omar Khadr, the Canadian-born son of Ahmed Khadr, a personal friend and financier to Osama bin Laden. At the age of 15, Khadr took part in a firefight against US Special Forces in Khost Province, Afghanistan. He was convicted of throwing a hand grenade that killed combat medic SFC Christopher Speer.

Khadr was detained, charged, and was subject to interrogation by both the US and Canada (the former of which was found by the Federal Court of Canada to have subjected Khadr to sleep deprivation).

He confessed to the charges and was convicted in a military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Following his repatriation in 2012 to serve out the remainder of his sentence in Canada, and his subsequent release in 2015, Khadr sued the federal government, alleging that it had conspired with the US to abuse his rights. As part of a settlement, Prime Minister Trudeau opted unilaterally to award Khadr a CAD$10.5 million (USD$8 million) payout, as well as a formal apology from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, and then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The official Statement of Apology read that it was hoped: “That this expression, and the negotiated settlement reached with the Government, will assist (Khadr) in his efforts to begin a new and hopeful chapter in his life with his fellow Canadians.” In the time since, PM Trudeau has continued to emphasise this approach to reintegration and rehabilitation of what he euphemistically calls “foreign travellers.”

Another example is the case of John Letts, aged 23 and dubbed ‘Jihadi Jack’, born in Oxford, UK, to British and Canadian parents. Letts travelled to Syria in 2014, is alleged to have served as an ISIS fighter, and was captured by the Kurdish group YPG during the Battle for Raqqa in 2017. When asked in a news interview if he was a terrorist, Letts replied: “Do you mean by the English Government’s definition, that anyone that opposes a non-Islamic system and man-made laws? Then, of course, by that definition, I suppose they’d say I’m a terrorist.”

Letts’ parents have been charged in the UK for funding terrorism, in that they tried to send money to their son on three occasions between September 2015 and January 2016, purportedly to help him escape ISIS. While awaiting trial, Letts’ parents have appealed to the Government of Canada for consular assistance in bringing their son to Canada, while, for the moment, Letts remains in Kurdish custody.

A more recent example is that of 28-year-old Mohammed Ali from the Canadian province of Ontario. He spent four years fighting for ISIS and served as a social media recruiter. Following his attempt to flee to Turkey with his wife and two children, after the group purportedly cast him out, he was detained by coalition-led forces and has been held in a Syrian prison for the past nine months. Ali said that he has been: “Hung out to dry,” and, in speaking of his desire to return to Canada, added: “Why shouldn’t I be able to go home? I’ve done nothing in Canada. I’ve broken no laws there.” In response, Public Safety Minister Goodale stated that repatriating foreign fighters to Canada is not a priority and that he would not risk diplomatic personnel in a: “Dangerous and dysfunctional” part of the world.

A few days ago, Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and host of the podcast Caliphate, interviewed two ISIS wives from the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Alberta, respectively. The women and their children surrendered to the SDF in Baghuz last week. After having spoken to them, Callimachi reported that the two women: “Seemed to be intent on justifying some of the horrible practices that we know of, that the group carried out, and they were not willing to express regret for having travelled to the caliphate.”

In a field as (inter)subjective and inherently contentious as terrorism, one or even a dozen case studies are typically not enough to draw conclusions on a universalist scale. A case-by-case analysis, elucidated by precedent in national and international law in collaboration with multidimensional security best practices are what is needed to track, intercept, and deter violent extremists from committing acts of terrorism at home and abroad.

While the Canadian numbers are understandably significantly lower than those of France, the UK, Germany or other partner countries, the issue of returning ISIS members as part of the broader debate on violent extremism is just as critical on either side of the Atlantic. It warrants a purposeful, dedicated, and multifaceted discussion that appreciates the complexity of the strategic situation on the ground in Syria and how political, judicial, and law enforcement authorities in home countries are equipped to deal with it, now that it has knocked on their front door.

The second part of this series will examine the questions posed by the return of ISIS members to Western countries and the implications of differing policies and strategies in terms of radicalisation and counterterrorism practices.

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Two articles from CRJ 13:1, September 2017: How to reintegrate extremist juvenile offenders; and Dangerous Homecoming – Islamic State Returnees and Refugees. Full articles available to subscribers only, click here for more 

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Casey Brunelle is a Canadian intelligence and strategic studies consultant with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, specialising in counterterrorism, public safety, and geopolitics. A regular contributor to Crisis Response Journal, he is a graduate of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK, as well as the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada 

Casey Brunelle, 18/02/2019
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