Sitting in a dim room at a detention camp in northern Syria, Kimberly Polman was feeling vulnerable. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had vowed to free female prisoners like herself, and she believed him.
“I take it seriously,” Polman said. “These people don’t play.”
She should know: the former British Columbia resident spent almost four years living under the Islamic State, until she and her husband were taken into custody nine months ago.
Now she is a detainee of the Kurdish forces, one of thousands in their custody because their own governments haven’t taken them back.
But what awaits Polman became even more uncertain this week, when Turkey launched an invasion of northern Syria.
The Turkish offensive shattered the relative calm that Kurdish forces had won six months ago by defeating ISIS and capturing roughly 100,000 fighters and their families.
And with the Kurds now occupied at their northern border, the incursion has created an opening for ISIS, one the terror group has been quick to exploit.
ISIS claimed responsibility for a car bombing on Friday in Qamishli, and five ISIS members escaped from a prison during shelling by Turkish forces. Another car bomb exploded last night outside an ISIS prison in Hasekah.
A Kurdish military official said his forces could no longer prioritize the camps and prisons where the ISIS captives are being held, raising the risk of breakouts that could undo years of sacrifice.
Turkey says it wants to occupy what it calls a “safe zone” in northern Syria.
Roj camp, where Polman is being held, is within that zone, meaning that even if ISIS doesn’t come for her, she could end up a prisoner of the Turkish military.
“We have reached out to Syrian Kurdish officials to seek information on Canadians in their custody and have sought assurances from Turkey that any Canadians detained in the region would be handled in accordance with international law,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Barbara Harvey.
A Muslim convert who travelled to Syria after befriending a man she met online, Polman stands out among the detainees arrested during the final throes of the so-called ISIS caliphate.
She is in her 40s and, unlike many women at the camps, does not wear a black niqab. In an interview, she was regretful and described a “deradicalization project” she was working on.
But Polman is typical in one sense: while the public debate over whether to repatriate Canadian ISIS suspects captured in Syria has focused mostly on the men, they are far outnumbered by women.
During two visits to the region, Global News found few Canadian men at prisons for ISIS detainees. Three identified themselves as Canadian citizens in interviews and another two were confirmed as Canadians. A sixth is detained in Turkey.
But at least 11 Canadian women are believed to be at Al-Hawl and Roj camps, along with almost two dozen children. Another two women are believed to be hiding in the region but have not yet been caught.
The gap between the numbers of women and men in captivity may have a simple explanation: while far more men left Canada to join ISIS, they died in greater numbers.
As a result, should the ISIS detainees return to Canada, police and social service agencies will likely be dealing mostly with women and their children rather than male ex-fighters.
In an interview, Polman told Global News, foreign fighter expert Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam of Queen’s University and national security law expert Leah West that the government should bring the Canadians home.
“We have a justice system. Put them in front of that system and let that system deal with them in a way that is actually much safer,” she said.
Getting the children out of the camps was “an automatic,” she said. She was concerned they would die at the camps and said they were at risk of radicalization as they got older.
“Look at the environment you’re in,” she said.
Polman said she accepted that she might be arrested when she returned to Canada, even though she said was ready to leave Syria two weeks after arriving from Vancouver in 2015.
“If the Canadian judicial system feels that I did something that needs to be prosecuted then I have to come under the laws of the country that I’m born into, like any other person,” she said.
“I’m not above the law, I’m not above anything.
“On the other side, I would suggest there’s teaching and then there’s punishment. I’m not sure that punishing a person’s thinking is always the best way of dealing with a big issue.”
The role of women in ISIS remains poorly understood. Propaganda videos show some women taking up arms while others take to social media to recruit or serve as enforcers of the harsh ISIS laws of conduct.
Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said women who came to Syria from countries like Canada “knew what they were doing.”
“From what we know about Canada, it’s a great country, it’s a healthy country, and a lot of people from different places in the world, they wish to arrive in Canada. So, for me, it doesn’t make sense when somebody is living in a very healthy country, leaves Canada and comes to Syria, so this means that she didn’t come here as a tourist,” he said.
“The women who came from far away, they came here to support the ISIS fighters.”
Three Canadian women interviewed by Global News during two visits to the region all said they were nothing more than housewives and mothers. A United Nations special rapporteur’s report also warned countries to take into account the “gendered realities under the caliphate.”
But West, a former national security lawyer in the Department of Justice, said the women could be charged with leaving Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group.
Proving their role in ISIS might be more difficult, she said.
“But these women still did travel abroad,” West said.
“They left Canada with the intention of joining ISIS or supporting ISIS, which is a crime.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter what they did when they got here. If they came here with the intent of supporting ISIS and joining the group, that is a crime,” said West, who teaches at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
The maximum sentence for such a crime is 10 years, which could ease public concerns that ISIS members might return from Syria and walk free. But Canadian authorities have neither charged any of the detainees nor made any effort to repatriate them.
The Liberal government’s position is that there is nothing it can do because northern Syria is too dangerous for Canadian officials to visit.
“We will not expose our consular officials to undue risk in this dangerous part of the world. Recent developments underscore the danger in the region,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s spokesman Scott Bardsley.
Although she has not spoken to any Canadian officials, Polman said she has “shared everything” with officials from another government. She did not elaborate except to say they were “non-Canadian.” Polman also holds U.S. citizenship.
“And they also went and spoke with the family extensively, and I think that they are well aware that I’ve been trying to get out since about two weeks after I arrived,” she said.
Polman’s family declined to comment.
Initially, Polman was held at Al-Hawl camp, where ISIS hardliners are vying to control daily life. She said she was not sure why she was relocated, “although I’m not objecting to it at all.”
Polman implied she was under threat at Al-Hawl, saying she had removed her niqab and was open about her regrets.
“And that doesn’t make you popular with certain people,” she said.
Polman portrayed herself as part of a counterweight to radicalism, describing how she and eight others had formed a group for a “deradicalization project to target the different age groups and the different situations of women in specific.”
“Words don’t ever put into what these years have taken from me, from my family, from, I think, a very innocent public that doesn’t deserve any of this. And I can’t fix all of that. I’m one person,” she said.
But she said she could help.
“I can work with the women that are here and try to get them on board with working with governments and please realize that there’s a real fear of doing that, too,” Polman said.
“This is all unknown territory. Many of us never had a parking ticket.”