As government prepares response to calls to bring ISIS members to justice, some walk free
On Facebook, the Pakistani-Canadian described himself in a recent post as a “Mujahid residing in Dar al Kufr” — a jihadist fighter in the land of disbelief.
But more than two years after flying back to Toronto and telling reporters he had served in the brutal ISIS police in Syria, he has not been arrested.
“No kafir can touch me,” he said in a recent text message to a former friend, who shared it with Global News. Kafir is an Arabic term for nonbeliever.
The government was to respond Tuesday to a House of Commons motion that called for “a plan to immediately bring to justice anyone who has fought as an ISIS terrorist or participated in any terrorist activity.”
Although introduced by the Conservative opposition, the Liberals and NDP supported the Oct. 22 motion, which specifically urged action against those “who are in Canada or have Canadian citizenship.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale responds in Question Period to a Global News report on the lack of charges against returning ISIS fighters.
“This prime minister has failed to secure Canada’s borders so badly that genocidal maniacs feel safe to brag to their friends about our prime minister’s fecklessness,” Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said during Question Period on Monday, referring to the Global News report about the Pakistani-Canadian.
In response, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said police and security agencies “are far more proficient at securing the country and keeping Canadians safe than the alleged sources that are referred to by the opposition.”
He said there was “no higher obligation or priority” than safeguarding Canadians.
“The fact of the matter is that every possible step is taken in relation to known terrorists to charge them and to prosecute them to the full extent of the law,” he said. “There is also a full suite of other measures that the government of Canada uses.”
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It’s unclear what the government will put forward Tuesday to address an issue that set off fiery parliamentary debate: Several Canadians who have joined, or tried to join, ISIS and other jihadist groups have not been charged with terrorism.
According to terrorism researcher Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam, only four of the at least 19 Canadians he has identified as having returned from Syria and Iraq have been charged. Two were convicted and two await trial. Five others were subjected to terrorism peace bonds that have now expired.
At least a half-dozen Canadians allegedly affiliated with ISIS, meanwhile, have been captured by U.S.-backed forces in Syria and want to return to Canada, including women from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Another Canadian is being held in Turkey.
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One of the captives, Muhammad Ali, told Global News in an exclusive interview he had been a member of an ISIS sniper unit. But neither he nor the others detained abroad face charges in Canada.
“Why are some people charged with terrorism-related offences while others are not?” asked an internal government document obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act.
“Terrorism investigations are complex and resource intensive, and are some of the most challenging investigations the RCMP conducts,” the document disclosed by the RCMP continued.
“Often, they require evidence of an individual’s activity in foreign conflict zones, or rely on information provided by partners that we are not authorized to disclose in court. The RCMP also faces challenges in collecting digital evidence, including access to encrypted online communications.”
“Despite the collapse of Daesh [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq, we have not seen a surge in foreign fighters attempting to return to Canada,” Vigneault told the Economic Club of Canada.
That is partly because so many have died. Almost two dozen have been killed in combat and airstrikes, including four ISIS fighters wanted by the RCMP, Amarasingam said.
Ten of the 19 identified by Amarasingam as having returned never actually made it to Syria or Iraq; they were turned back before crossing the border. That includes, Pamir Hakimzadah and Rehab Dughmosh, who go on trial next year on terrorism charges.
But jihadist fighter Ahmad Waseem was able to come home to Windsor, Ont., receive hospital treatment for a gunshot wound and then return to fight with ISIS until he was shot again, this time fatally.
The friend who signed his passport application and travelled with him to Syria, Mohammed El Shaer, was subjected to a terrorism peace bond upon returning to Windsor but was not charged with terrorism offences.
The lack of charges against some of those who have come back has meant they faced no legal consequences for having participated in terrorist groups responsible for horrendous atrocities.
It is also a potential security risk.
A photo on the Facebook page of the Pakistani-Canadian showed rows of shoes. “Other guy goals,” the caption read. Below it was a photo of a cache of military-style firearms. “My goals,” read the post by the man, who identified himself in his profile as “Abu Huzayfa.” He has since deleted the post.
The “right to enter” Canada is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights. “Therefore, even if a Canadian engaged in terrorist activity abroad, the government of Canada must facilitate their return to Canada,” said a briefing note prepared for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
The RCMP works with Canadian officials posted overseas to identify high-risk travellers, who may approach diplomatic posts for new passports. Their return is managed by a High-Risk Returnee Interdepartmental Taskforce and the RCMP’s National Security Joint Operation Centre.
“Once RCMP is made aware of a possible returnee, they exchange what information they have through the NSJOC and existing mechanisms and make an assessment of what risk they may pose,” the briefing note said.
“Following that, the Taskforce will meet to discuss as a community, what measures can be taken to control the return of the individual. There are standard operating procedures in place for this process, including what measures can be put in place to address returnees.”
“For instance, RCMP may use undercover officers to engage with the HRT to collect evidence, or to monitor them during their flight home. They could also be subjected to secondary customs screening and in some cases, or detention by police, when they reach Canada.”
WATCH: ISIS fighters’ Canadian wives want to return home
Depending on the risk, police have several options: criminal charges; peace bonds to “mitigate the threat”; or having an “intervention team work with the returnee’s family to open up dialogue with the individual and to help support the returnee’s disengagement from their radical ideology and past behaviour.”
Professor Stephanie Carvin, a national security and terrorism expert at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the approach outlined in the documents was “good on paper.”
“But we do not really have a good idea of how it is working in practice. The government must respect privacy concerns, but we really don’t have any concrete data to say whether or not the RCMP’s approach is being implemented well.”
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