Returning ISIS members pose potential chemical weapons risk to Canada: internal government documents

ISIS is now listed as a terrorist entity under Canada's Criminal Code
Image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows ISIS fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File). AP Photo/Militant Website, File

ISIS members who return to Canada from Syria and Iraq could have knowledge of chemical weapons and put it to use in a terrorist attack, according to internal government documents obtained by Global News.

The documents said the so-called Islamic State had repeatedly used chlorine and mustard gas in Syria and Iraq, raising the prospect of their use in Canada by returning foreign fighters.

“While the threat of a chemical attack in Canada is considered remote, there continues to be a potential risk of extremist travelers returning to Canada, having gained knowledge of the use of crude chemical weapons,” Public Safety Canada wrote.

The issue is one of the complexities facing Canadian police and security agencies preparing for the return of those who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups like ISIS and local Al Qaeda factions.

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The federal government says about 100 extremists left Canada to join terror groups in the region. Another 60 have returned after having served in overseas terror groups.

Few of those returnees were with ISIS but given events on the ground in Iraq and Syria, authorities are anticipating more may come back in the next few months, including women and children.

The chance of a successful chemical weapons attack in Canada was considered extremely low due to “robust domestic controls” over the required materials and technology, the documents said.

“However, Daesh’s known use of commercially available toxic industrial chemicals in attacks is indicative of the group’s ability to use any means available,” said the documents, which used another term for ISIS.

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The United States, United Kingdom and France launched missile strikes on Syrian facilities on April 14 in response to a chemical weapons attack in Douma a week earlier that killed dozens.

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The coalition countries blamed Syria’s Russian-backed president, Bashar al-Assad, for the atrocity. Both chlorine and sarin were reportedly used in the regime attacks on the rebel-held city.

ISIS has also conducted chemical attacks. CNN, quoting U.S. officials, reported last year that ISIS had formed a “chemical weapons cell” in Syria to help defend its strongholds.

The possibility that ISIS foreign fighters could return to Canada with chemical weapons know-how was raised by federal officials in drafts of the 2017 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada.

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The draft reports, obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act, cited the issue repeatedly. But all mentions of the issue were cut from the final version of the Public Safety Canada report released last December.

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An editing note in one draft said the Privy Council Office had called the section on chemical weapons “speculative” and said that ISIS was “more proficient in TATP,” a high explosive.

This image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
Another draft contained an editing note that questioned including the passages on chemical weapons. “What is the utility of raising this ‘non-threat’ … there are higher terrorist threat concern[s] that should be focused [on].”

The drafts said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism had found that ISIS had used mustard gas in Marea, Syria in August 2015.

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“In Iraq and Syria, Daesh has adapted chemical agents, specifically chlorine and a crude form of mustard gas, and has used these weapons on several occasions against Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish fighters,” a draft report read.

ISIS attacks in Western countries have typically made use of more simple weapons such as vehicles, knives, firearms and explosives. The terror group “is believed to have experimented with more complex weapons systems, including mortars, rockets and chemical weapons, but their use has so far been limited to Syria and Iraq,” one draft said.

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