World

Bring them home

The rescue of the orphan ‘Amira’ has raised pressure on Ottawa to take back other children of Canadians who fought in Syria for ISIS—and to prosecute the fighters here

It’s been two years since the final territorial redoubt of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) fell to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Euphrates River Valley, in the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani. Aided by the air power of a 30-nation U.S.-led coalition, the SDF siege began on Feb. 9, 2019.

The battle was expected to take a few days, at most. The operation ended up taking weeks, for reasons that touch on a subject that Global Affairs Canada and the Prime Minister’s Office are reluctant to discuss. Human rights activists are beginning to call it “Canada’s Guantánamo.”

The Battle of Baghuz Fawqani turned into a bloody and drawn-out affair not only because the town was tripwired with bombs and riddled with tunnels. It was also that the holdout militants included perhaps 2,000 of the most devoted and hardened foreign ISIS fighters, from more than 60 countries. There were Canadians among them, along with their wives and children.

The reason Ottawa goes quiet is that, apart from a five-year-old orphan girl Canada repatriated last October in a widely celebrated case, at least 46 “ISIS-affiliated” Canadians are still over there. By a rough count, the Canadian detainees known to remain in Kurdish custody are eight men, 13 women and 25 children.

Most of the children are under the age of seven. Born in Syria to Canadian parents, they are as entitled to the same citizenship rights as the orphaned girl known in court documents only as “Amira.” They’ve been left behind, nonetheless.

The Kurdish authorities in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) say they don’t want to keep the Canadians in custody, and stipulate only that Canadian children should not be separated from their Canadian mothers.

But Canada still won’t take them back, and Global Affairs has consistently offered only opaque justifications—the absence of formal diplomatic relations with the Syrian Kurdish authorities, the safety and security of Canadian consular personnel—that haven’t stood up under the scrutiny of international human rights organizations. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which looked into the matter of the Canadian children last year, was especially unimpressed: “Returning children is a humanitarian and human rights imperative.”

The federal government’s excuses don’t hold up in Canadian law, either, says Lawrence Greenspon, the human rights lawyer who represented Amira in a federal court judicial-review application last July. Ottawa avoided a court order in Amira’s case by moving swiftly to repatriate the girl to Canada.

Now, a dozen Canadian families have retained Greenspon to act on behalf of four of the “ISIS-affiliated” men under lock and key in Syria, along with 11 women—mostly ISIS widows—and 19 children. None has been charged by the Kurdish authorities with any crime. Greenspon says he expects others to sign on before legal proceedings begin.

Women, children and an ISIS militant walk during the surrender in Baghuz (Issam Abdallah/Reuters)

Most of the Canadians are now lodged at a special camp at Roj, a village in a secure area about a half-hour’s drive from Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka border crossing at Faysh Khabur, on the Tigris River. The AANES authorities have put the camp to use as a temporary detention site for the “least radical” of the foreign ISIS women—those who have demonstrated genuine remorse—and their children.

An Ottawa lawyer known for taking unpopular cases, Greenspon says there may well be individuals among the Canadians in Kurdish custody who have committed horrific acts of terrorism, but there’s little merit to the common assumption that their convictions would be hard to secure because of evidence-gathering difficulties. Travelling overseas to join a terrorist group alone is a criminal offence under amendments to the Criminal Code brought in by the 2013 Combating Terrorism Act.

“We have the machinery in place. If you’ve got the evidence to prosecute them, then prosecute them,” Greenspon says. “If you bring them home and you don’t have the evidence, then isn’t that more of a reason why they shouldn’t be rotting away in a prison in northeastern Syria?”

In the absence of criminal-justice remedies, Ottawa is spending millions of dollars every year on monitoring, counselling and rehabilitation in its national strategy to counter radicalization, Greenspon noted. It is not as though the returned detainees would simply be allowed to hail a cab at the airport and vanish.

As things stand, Greenspon says, it’s Ottawa that’s in breach of the law by violating the Canadians’ rights under the Citizenship Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. If the government doesn’t relent and bring them home, Greenspon says, he’ll be seeing the federal government in court, before a judge, sometime this spring.

He won’t reveal his clients’ identities, and in court documents they’re expected to be identified only by initials. This is not just to shield the Canadian families from hostile publicity, he says, but to protect the children from the trauma of enduring notoriety.

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Amira was orphaned in the final days of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s nightmare “caliphate,” during the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani. According to details pieced together by her relatives and friends of the family, Amira’s parents and two older siblings were killed in a coalition bombing. At least 290 air and artillery strikes rattled Baghuz Fawqani during the battle, according to Airwars, a British agency that monitored harm to civilians during the western air operations in Syria and Iraq.

A study by the Washington-based Middle East Institute paints a picture of bloody chaos in the caliphate’s last days in the Euphrates Valley. ISIS shooters fired on civilians trying to flee. The Kurdish-led SDF fired on civilian vehicles racing toward them, mistaking them for suicide cars packed with explosives. Several SDF troops were killed by black-draped “ISIS brides” carrying bombs made to look like swaddled babies. Hundreds were killed in the battle, and it has never been clear how many were foreign ISIS fighters or how many of them, if any, were Canadians.

Several countries have already repatriated their ISIS foreign-fighter nationals, their wives or widows, and their children, Last year, the Kurdish authorities repatriated nearly 200 Americans, Russians, Danes, Albanians, Belgians, Finns, Germans and Norwegians. As for why Canada has become an outlier, Ottawa has consistently referred to “safety and security,” and the absence of diplomats in Syria. Canada severed diplomatic ties with Bashar al-Assad’s blood-drenched regime in 2012.

Ottawa’s public position remains unchanged, even though several senior Canadian officials arrived safely in limousines for an Oct. 7 meeting with senior Kurdish officials at the gleaming AANES offices in the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamlishi on the Turkish border, and left with Amira without difficulty, according to the AANES foreign relations department. The Canadian delegation was led by Canada’s executive coordinator for Syria, Gregory Galligan, a diplomat based in Beirut.

Global Affairs declined to provide Maclean’s with answers to several questions: how many “ISIS-affiliated” Canadians are known to be detained by Kurdish authorities at its camps in northeastern Syria; details of the detainees’ ages and genders; what efforts Canada may be making on their behalf; what consular services, if any, are available to them; and what specific obstacles stand in the way of their return.

Global Affairs says only that it is monitoring the situation “very closely” and that Canadian consular officials are “actively engaged” with the Kurdish authorities. “Canada’s embassy in Syria remains closed and we have no diplomatic representation in the country at this time,” spokesperson Angela Savard tells me. “Due to provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”

Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party has called on Ottawa to bring the children home and prosecute their parents under Canada’s terrorism laws. Last year, New Democratic Party elder statesman Ed Broadbent, acknowledging Canadians’ disgust with ISIS atrocities, said Ottawa must act, regardless: “The real test of political character is to defend rights when they are under threat by public opinion here at home.”

At the height of its barbaric reign in Northern Syria and Iraq, the ISIS caliphate ruled over about seven million people and controlled at least 100,000 sq. km of territory, an area about the size of the American state of Virginia. The al-Qaeda offshoot’s scorched-earth reign of terror was marked by mass slaughter, mass rape, slave-raiding and a ferocious, genocidal war on the area’s minority Yazidi population.

Quite apart from the duty of care Canada owes to its citizens in Kurdish custody, Ottawa should consider Canada’s obligations to the Kurds, says Leah West, a national security scholar at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, and former counsel in national security litigation for the Department of Justice.

“I don’t care about those adults,” says West, who served as a captain with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in Afghanistan, and led armoured reconnaissance operations for combat missions in Kandahar. “I had a lot of friends die at the hands of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, so no. I don’t care about the adults.

“But I do care about Canada’s responsibilities, and it astounds me that we are still expecting the Kurds to bear this burden, that we export our trash to the main victims of ISIS. Let’s take this responsibility off the shoulders of the poor Kurds.”

Baghuz the day after the SDF declared victory over ISIS (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

Baghuz the day after the SDF declared victory over ISIS (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

Kurdish irregulars bore the brunt of the global struggle against ISIS, losing roughly 11,000 fighters in the years leading up to the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani. They were aided by Canada only briefly, when the Canadian Forces played a small part in the U.S.-led air coalition, and then took on a special-forces training role with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

And ISIS was not merely a Syrian or an Iraqi phenomenon. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London has built a data set of 41,490 fighters from 80 countries who devoted themselves to war crimes and terror in service of jihad and the ISIS cause. That’s not some auxiliary grouping. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says foreign jihadists far outnumbered Syrian jihadists in the casualty rolls in the first three years of al-Baghdadi’s caliphate.

Among the “ISIS-affiliated” Canadians still in Kurdish custody is Mohammed Khalifa, captured by the SDF in January 2019. The former Toronto resident has confessed to his captors, to Global News reporter Stewart Bell and to the New York Times that he was the notorious ISIS propagandist “Abu Ridwan.” Voice-analysis specialists have confirmed that Khalifa was the narrator of the gruesome “Flames of War” videos that showed captives forced to dig their own graves and then executed en masse, and captives drowned in cages and burned alive. Khalifa also narrated the 2014 video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley that U.S. President Barack Obama called “an act of violence that shocks the conscience of the entire world.”

Another is Muhammad Ali, an ISIS sniper and third-tier propagandist from Mississauga, Ont., whose online persona was “Abu Turaab al-Kanadi.” Ali, whose Canadian wife, Rida Jabbar, and two children are also in Kurdish custody, claims that he grew disenchanted with ISIS, and is resigned to facing charges when he returns to Canada. He says he just wants his life back.

Then there’s the strange case of “Jihadi Jack” Letts, the Canadian-U.K. dual national whose British citizenship was revoked for joining ISIS—a charge Letts denies. His parents, who say Letts suffered as a child from obsessive-compulsive disorder, ended up convicted on charges of funding terrorism. They say they merely sent their son money to help him escape from ISIS.

In a similar case, the dual U.S.-Canadian citizen Kimberly Polman, a Mennonite-turned-Muslim from Hamilton, left three adult children and travelled to Syria to marry a pen pal and work as a nurse. She says she had tried to escape ISIS territory but was caught, brutally raped and locked away for months in solitary confinement. Now she’s in Kurdish custody, hoping to find a way home to Canada.

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As for little Amira, she was finally identified and located by her uncle Ibrahim (also a court-application pseudonym) at a makeshift displaced-persons camp at al-Hawl, a six-hour journey north of Baghuz Fawqani, several weeks after the battle. A refugee camp from the 1990-91 Gulf War built for 20,000 people, it had become a dangerous, violent and disease-ridden tent city of 70,000. Amira survived all this, and by all accounts she is living a happy, well-adjusted life in the Greater Toronto Area in the care of her uncle and her grandparents.

“She’s just a wonderful, wonderful girl,” Greenspon tells me. “She’s a bit shy, but she’s a wonderful little girl. She’s been learning English by watching Paw Patrol.”

Global Affairs still won’t even say whether Amira left with Canadian officials via the Turkish border crossing a short drive across town from the AANES offices in Qamishli—the Kurdish authorities are in an on-again, off-again state of war with Turkey—or through Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka border crossing at Faysh Khabur, 132 km east of Qamishli. The government “is committed to protecting the safety and security of Canadian officials,” Global Affairs’ Savard told me. “We will not be providing further details for security reasons.”

Even the United States has managed to bring American ISIS fighters back to the U.S. for prosecution. The week before Amira was retrieved from Kurdish custody last October, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had repatriated the last four Americans detained by the SDF on terrorism charges. A total of 27 Americans were repatriated before Amira was released into Canadian custody. Ten are being processed on terrorism-related charges in the U.S. arising from their support for ISIS.

In a stinging 24,000-word analysis published last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that Canada is flouting its international human rights obligations to the Canadian detainees by failing to take necessary and reasonable steps to assist them, by denying them consular assistance, by failing to support family members who want to provide their detained relatives with money for essentials like food and medicine, and by denying the Canadian children citizenship verification. They possess only birth certificates issued by the Islamic State, rendering them effectively stateless.

The report’s lead researcher and author, Letta Tayler, associate director of HRW’s crisis and conflict division, says she was shocked by what she found. There are more Canadian detainees languishing in northeast Syria than there are prisoners left at the notorious Guantánamo detention facility the U.S. set up after 9/11 to detain al-Qaeda suspects, Tayler pointed out. “And more than half of these Canadians are young children. It’s great that Trudeau brought home one orphan, but that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for the fates of all the other Canadians he left behind.”

Like Greenspon, Tayler insists that the “ISIS-affiliated” Canadians should be repatriated and prosecuted in Canada on the evidence for whatever criminal acts they may have committed. Abandoning citizens to the Kurdish AANES, which international law defines as a non-state entity, is wholly unacceptable in a “rule of law” country, she says.

“Canada projects this warm and fuzzy reputation on the global stage. It takes in refugees, it champions the rights of women, it even spearheads global efforts to help children who are victims of armed conflict—which is exactly what the Canadian children trapped in northeast Syria are,” Tayler tells me. Canada is “coasting on its reputation and evading the pressure that rights groups are putting on Western European countries to bring their citizens home.”

Even former U.S. president Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have brought more citizens home from Syria than “Mr. Nice Guy Trudeau,” Tayler says. The U.K. has done so despite passing a law in 2014 allowing the government to strip ISIS fighters of their citizenship, even if that meant they were left stateless.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives brought in a law similar to Britain’s, stripping citizenship from dual-nationality Canadians convicted of terrorism, treason or espionage, but it was overturned by Trudeau’s Liberals. Trudeau campaigned against that law during the 2015 election campaign, and even had a snappy slogan for it: “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

Alexandra Bain, an associate professor of religious studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, laughs about that. A co-founder of the support group Families Against Violent Extremism, Bain says most of the Canadians who were drawn to the ISIS caliphate should be understood as the victims of a bizarre cult within a gross perversion of Islam. She says Canadians have little to fear from their return.

Bain, who has served as an informal liaison between the “ISIS-affiliated” families and Greenspon, says part of the attraction of Northern Syria is the role it plays in a prophecy attributed to Mohammed, which situates the town of Dabiq, an ancient town about 40 km northeast of Aleppo, near the Turkish border, as the site of the final battle that will herald the Day of Judgment.

“It’s basically a cult,” Bain says. “But there’s no forgiveness for these people, there’s nobody helping them. And if we don’t help them, we’re acting just the way ISIS does. If they’ve broken the law or harmed somebody, they still have rights. They deserve to come home.”


This article appears in print in the March 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Bring them home.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.