The RCMP is preparing for the return of at least a dozen Canadians detained in Syria amidst the collapse of the so-called Islamic State, a senior law enforcement official has told Global News.
The capture of suspected Canadian ISIS members, and uncertainty over their fate due to a planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, has prompted the RCMP to ramp up preparations for their possible arrival.
As part of a national strategy now being put in place, police are working with prosecutors to prepare charges and peace bonds against the detainees, and speaking with allies to manage their return to Canada.
“We need to get ready in case they come back sooner than what we had expected,” Deputy Commissioner Gilles Michaud, who heads the RCMP’s federal policing branch, said in an interview Wednesday.
While many of the Canadians in ISIS are believed to have died, Global News revealed last October that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were holding several, both men and women.
In recent weeks, the SDF has taken more Canadians into custody around the last pocket of ISIS territory in northeast Syria, forcing the RCMP to rethink its assumption that they were unlikely to come back.
The United States has encouraged countries to repatriate and prosecute their captured ISIS members, while the United Kingdom has taken a different approach, cancelling their citizenship.
Canada’s stated policy is that the government could do nothing because the detainees were in what Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called a “dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world” where Ottawa had no diplomatic presence.
VIDEO: Trucks evacuate civilians from last Islamic State pockets in Syria
But behind the scenes, the RCMP is working “all hands on deck” to get ready, Michaud said, adding the Mounties were helping local police forces and federal agencies gear up to deal with the returnees.
“The reason why we’re doing all of this is because any information on any individual that could pose a threat to Canadians, we will investigate fully,” said Michaud, who oversees the RCMP’s national security branch.
“But it may take time,” he said. “We may not be in a position, as each and every one of them comes back to Canada, that we’re at that stage where we can arrest them.”
The RCMP’s National Security Joint Operations Centre is at the centre of the returnee plan. Based in Ottawa, it shares information about foreign fighters with federal departments and international allies.
The government has cancelled the passports of known foreign fighters, meaning they must get new ones from a Canadian diplomatic post — a system that alerts the RCMP so it can direct their return.
The Canadian detainees leaving Syria are likely to cross into Turkey, Michaud said. As a result, the RCMP is talking with Turkish authorities about allowing the detainees to transit through to Canada rather than putting them on trial in Turkish courts.
The RCMP is also encouraging Turkey not to question the Canadians about their roles in ISIS or search their electronic devices, since that could taint the evidence needed to successfully prosecute them in Canada.
VIDEO: Canadian ISIS fighter captured in northern Syria says he wants to return to Canada
Upon their arrival in Canada, the RCMP intends to conduct assessments and decide how to proceed with each case: criminal charges, terrorism peace bonds or interventions.
“Those are basically the three lanes,” Michaud said.
To the extent possible, he said, the RCMP is trying to have charges ready before they set foot back on Canadian soil and is working with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to see what can be used as evidence.
Those currently in detention in Syria include a Canadian who promoted ISIS on social media and another who is believed to have helped produce execution videos. Both have admitted to their activities in interviews with reporters.
Michaud said the RCMP was “looking at what’s out there, what’s been reported, what’s on social media” and trying to determine how to use it as evidence. “What can we do with that information? How much of it do we need to corroborate? All of that aspect is key.”
He said there were also “pockets of intelligence” that were under discussion with the Crowns. “Here’s what we have. How much can we push? What does it mean for us in laying charges?” Michaud said. “That engagement with PPSC has been ongoing.”
If charges or peace bonds are either impossible or not warranted, the RCMP is talking to police forces in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver about having community social services agencies intervene.
“Because some of these folks may come back and we may not have enough to charge them, or it may not be they need to charge them either, but they will require some social services,” Michaud said.
Many of the Canadians detained in Syria are children. They are unlikely to be charged with terrorism offences but, having been raised under ISIS, they will almost certainly need programming to help with their reintegration.
VIDEO: There are consequences for Canadians leaving to fight in a warzone: Goodale
The government’s Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence is supposed to support the “disengagement of extremist travellers, and their families, from violent extremist ideologies.”
In Toronto, as well as several other cities, police can bring extremism cases to community “hubs” or “situation tables” that try to help steer people away from violence.
The result might be a combination of mentoring, an employment program, religious counselling, trauma counselling, social housing and speaking to a reformed jihadist.
VIDEO: There will be consequences for returning ISIS fighters: McCrimmon
A group called Families Against Violent Extremism has said it was working to bring 29 Canadians, most of them children, back to Canada from Syrian prisons and camps.
Michaud said there were at least a dozen Canadians.
“We take care of our own. Basically, they are Canadians and I think it’s our responsibility,” he said.