The federal government has explored “a number of possible options” for bringing captured Islamic State group members back to Canada, according to a “secret” document obtained by Global News.
“None of the options are ideal and all present different challenges and risks,” said the three-page briefing prepared last year and recently released under the Access to Information Act.
Although the document was heavily redacted, two experts said it was clearly about the government’s response to detained members of the terrorist group who were asking to return to Canada.
It reveals that, after a handful of Canadians were captured in Syria and Turkey, officials in the Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic department that supports the work of the prime minister, held a meeting on April 18, 2018.
The document described it as a “meeting on managed returns.”
A “meeting note” prepared for Ian Shugart, then deputy minister of foreign affairs, said that up to four adults were “being held” and had “requested assistance to return to Canada.”
“We have no direct contact with the individuals … We have received information about them from their families or from CSIS,” it said, referring to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“However, as part of our due diligence, my officials, in consultation with the interdepartmental community, have evaluated a number of possible options/transfer scenarios.”
WATCH: Canadian ISIS fighter captured in northern Syria says he wants to return to Canada
But the note said there were “important political, logistical and policy implications,” and that despite the charter right of Canadians to return to Canada, “this does not necessarily oblige a specific course of action by the government of Canada.”
Shugart is now the clerk of the Privy Council.
Since the meeting, the number of Canadians detained by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has grown to more than 30, according to one estimate. Some are ISIS fighters but most are children.
The government has struggled with the issue amid concerns that due to the challenges of collecting evidence on possible crimes that occurred in Syria, police may be unable to bring terrorism charges against all returning ISIS members.
WATCH: Alleged Canadian ISIS fighter talks about his capture in video released by Syrian Democratic Forces
While the United States and the Kurds have urged countries to take back and prosecute their citizens, Canada has not complied. But the document is confirmation that Ottawa has examined ways of doing so.
It also reveals that Global Affairs has assessed claims of mistreatment and torture, apparently by Kurdish forces, who led the fight against ISIS in northeast Syria and captured hundreds of foreign fighters.
“There have been allegations of torture and mistreatment,” it said. “Global Affairs Canada’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Torture and Mistreatment met to consider the allegations.
“The allegations of mistreatment were deemed to be serious and credible, and while the allegations of torture were considered serious, the working group was not able to evaluate credibility given lack of information.”
The document also refers to action taken by Global Affairs on Jan. 10, 2018. While the details were redacted, that was the date an official from the department spoke by phone and text to Jack Letts.
Letts is a British man who holds Canadian citizenship through his father. Dubbed Jihadi Jack by the British press, he traveled to Syria in 2014 and was subsequently captured by Kurdish forces.
Following the conversation, Global Affairs wrote in a letter that it had “expressed our concern to Kurdish representatives on several occasions about the allegations of torture and mistreatment in Mr. Letts’ case.”
The RCMP has recently been looking into transiting Canadian ISIS members held in Syria through neighbouring Turkey, and investigators have been working on developing charges should that happen.
“Investigating, arresting, charging and prosecuting any Canadian involved in terrorism or violent extremism is our top priority. They must be held accountable for their actions,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s press secretary, Scott Bardsley.
—With files from David Akin