In an exclusive Global News series, Stewart Bell reports from Iraq and Syria on the aftermath of the war against the so-called Islamic State. In Part 1, Global looks at Canadian ISIS members who are being held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the challenges Justin Trudeau’s government faces with Canadian members of the terror group.
A high-profile Canadian member of the so-called Islamic State has been caught while attempting to return to Canada, Global News has confirmed.
Muhammad Ali, 28, who left Toronto in 2014 to join ISIS, was captured by Kurdish forces as he tried to flee from Syria to Turkey.
Global News interviewed Ali at a makeshift prison where he is being held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, the military alliance that controls northeast Syria.
The former Ryerson University student, who went by Abu Turaab Al-Kanadi, was taken into custody four months ago in Ras al-Ayn, on the Turkish border.
At the time, he was with his Canadian wife, former Vancouver resident Rida Jabbar, and their two children, both born in Syria.
His family is being detained at a camp not far from the prison where Kurdish, American and British officials have been interrogating Ali.
His capture is significant because, aside from serving as a sniper, Ali used social media to encourage others to join ISIS and conduct terrorist attacks.
Ali’s case has placed the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a difficult position. Kurdish officials want to hand Ali and a dozen other Canadians over to Ottawa.
However, with the RCMP struggling to bring charges against Canadians who have taken part in overseas terror groups, there is no guarantee Ali would face arrest upon his return.
Kurdish authorities said they were holding almost 900 foreign ISIS fighters, as well as 500 wives and more than 1,000 children, and want governments to take back those that are their citizens.
Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of Foreign Affairs for the Democratic Self-Administration of North Syria told Global News in an interview in Qamlishi, a city in northern Syria, that 10 Canadians were currently being held.
“So far we have three ISIS fighters, two women and five children. In total there are 10 Canadian citizens,” Omar said. “The fighters are in prisons and the women and children are in the camps.”
Those numbers do not include Ali’s family.
Omar said Kurdish officials met months ago with Canadian diplomats in northern Iraq.
“There was a dialogue with the Canadian government via the Canadian consulate in Beirut,” he said. “We had a meeting in Sulaymaniyah and there was some good steps and we filled application forms and then suddenly the Canadian government stopped this process and we don’t know why.”
Canada’s foreign affairs department would not say how many Canadians were in SDF custody. “Global Affairs Canada is aware that Canadian citizens are being detained in Syria,” a spokeswoman said.
The government “is engaged in these cases and is providing assistance, to the extent possible,” said spokesperson Amy Mills. “Given the unpredictable security situation, the government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in all parts of Syria is severely limited.”
The Integrated National Security Enforcement Team has been investigating Ali but he has not been charged. Canadian officials have not spoken to him since he was apprehended.
WATCH: Canada offers ‘reintegration support’ for ISIS fighters (Nov. 2017)
According to ISIS documents smuggled out of the region, Ali joined the terror group on April 24, 2014. His ISIS membership form indicated he asked to serve as a fighter.
Once he had joined, he made no secret about it, posting on social media accounts that he was a “soldier” in ISIS. “Everyone will die eventually. It’s inevitable,” he wrote. “Best to go out fighting for what you believe in.”
His Ask.FM account encouraged others to join ISIS, gave advice on how to do it and told recruits to contact him once they arrived in Turkey.
One online message suggested he had helped a group of Canadians cross into Syria to join ISIS. The friends are all believed to be from the Toronto area.
“Analysts still trying to figure out what radicalizes us,” a post on his Twitter account read. “Read the Quran … and look at the dire situation in Muslim Lands.”
He spoke about playing soccer with severed heads, wrote that homosexuals “should be killed” and posted ISIS’s incitement lines, such as: “Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian of military.”
Following the deadly October 2014 terror attacks that killed Canadian soldiers in Quebec and Ottawa, he wrote, “First Ottawa, then Quebec. Strike them, just as they strike your brothers and sisters.”
He had been absent from social media in recent years, feeding speculation he was dead. But he had only gone offline, while continuing his involvement with ISIS.
University of Ottawa Professor Craig Forcese said some of his online posts could be considered participation in a terrorist group, counselling a criminal offence, hate speech and uttering threats.
“Everything turns on the quality of this information,” he said.
“This is a big burden on our shoulders and this is a big number of ISIL fighters and they pose a serious threat here so we cannot keep them here,” said Omar, the official with the Democratic Self-Administration of North Syria. He added that should the conflict flare in the region, the ISIS members might escape.
“This is a good chance for the international community because we have them in our custody. They should take on their moral responsibilities and address this issue,” he said.
“We have sacrificed a lot to be able to capture those dangerous and notorious criminals, 900 people, ISIL fighters, every country should assume their responsibilities and try to help us to address this issue and take their citizens back to their countries and try them in their countries.”
The FBI recently brought a woman captured by Kurdish forces and her four children back to the U.S., and Russia and Sudan took back their nationals, Omar said. “But this is not enough, we need to find an overall solution.”