A key member of the Islamic State media branch, Toronto’s Mohammed Khalifa was captured in January following a gun battle with Kurdish fighters, but nine months in prison haven’t dampened his zeal.
“I do see an obligation to continue fighting,” he told Global News in an interview in northern Syria.
He just might get the chance.
He faces no charges in Canada and a Turkish invasion has brought chaos to the region where he is detained, throwing his fate and that of thousands of other foreign ISIS captives into question.
Whether they will escape to rejoin ISIS, attempt to return home or become prisoners of Turkey or the Syrian regime remains to be seen, but each of those options is problematic.
Adding to the sudden unpredictability surrounding ISIS detainees is that, should any of the Canadians find their way back to Canada, they do not yet face any charges.
Although the federal government has called prosecuting Canadians involved in terrorism “our top priority,” it has yet to bring any ISIS suspects caught in Syria to justice.
The risks of leaving Canadian ISIS members like Khalifa for the Kurdish forces to deal with became more clear last week when Turkey launched its offensive into northern Syria.
The attack led to renewed ISIS operations, escapes by hundreds of ISIS families and an abrupt shift in alliances. Abandoned by the United States, the Kurds turned to Syria’s pro-Russia president, Bashar Al Assad.
Kurdish forces said they would continue to detain the ISIS suspects and either seek to prosecute them at an international tribunal or send them back to their own countries, but circumstances are evolving quickly.
“Things are changing so rapidly that making predictions is probably a waste of time,” said Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam, who recently visited northern Syria.
With a week to go in the federal election, the Canadian government has said little in response to the turn of events, but former federal government national security lawyer Leah West said there was enough evidence to charge Khalifa with several terrorism offences in Canada.
Together with Global News and Amarasingam, West interviewed Khalifa at a base of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces a week before the Turkish invasion.
During the hour-long interview, Khalifa admitted to leaving Canada with the intention of fighting in Syria and narrating ISIS propaganda releases such as the mass execution video Flames of War.
West said several charges were appropriate, including participating in terrorist activity, facilitating terrorist activity and counselling terrorist activity, as well as counselling and taking part in war crimes.
“His voice is very identifiable. And he acknowledges that that is his voice. It wouldn’t be that hard to match the two up,” said West, who teaches at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“So to me, this is pretty strong evidence that he … committed these crimes. And that type of evidence could be used and would be admissible in a Canadian court,” she said.
For his part, Khalifa acknowledged he had counselled violence.
“I mean, it’s pretty obvious,” he said.
“As far as I remember, if you did the same sort of thing in America, where you’re translating any jihadi material, you’d be charged with incitement. So I assume it’s the same in Canada,” he said.
In addition to Khalifa, Kurdish forces were holding Mohammad Ali, a self-admitted ISIS sniper from Toronto who openly called for attacks in Canada on social media. Also in their custody were three other men who identified as Canadians, at least 11 women and two dozen children.
Asked why none had been charged, the RCMP said terrorism investigations were “complex and resource-intensive.”
“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,” said RCMP Sgt. Caroline Duval.
Radicalized by al-Qaida lectures
In his account to Global News, Khalifa said he was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Italy with his family before they settled in downtown Toronto when he was five.
He had no troubles at school, and his relationship with his parents was good, he said. They divorced when he was in elementary school and he lived with his mother but still saw his father.
Religion did not interest him until he left Central Tech High School and began studying at a local mosque, he said.
“I attended some lessons and it just had an impact on me, so I just started taking faith more seriously.”
In about 2008, he began following conservative Islamic online forums, and during the Arab Spring uprisings, he began to follow an al-Qaida cleric who had been killed in a U.S drone strike in Yemen.
“At the time, I was basically listening to lectures by Anwar Al Awlaki and following what was happening in Syria.”
“That’s basically when I made the decision, around the summer,” he said.
He told his mother he was moving to Egypt. He disclosed his true intentions to no one.
“I figured that if they knew that I was going to go and fight in Syria they’d try to stop me.”
From Toronto, he flew to Cairo and Istanbul and continued to the southern Turkish region of Hatay. He took a taxi to the border and gave a smuggler a few hundred U.S. dollars to get him into Syria on a bus.
His plans weren’t thought out in detail. He didn’t know which armed Islamist group he wanted to join until he got to the border and decided on Muhajireen al Ansar because its members spoke English.
He was sent for training but claimed he ended up just waiting at a house and exercising in the backyard. When the Muhajireen merged with ISIS that fall, he joined the Islamic State and was recruited into the media wing in April 2014.
“They saw in him something — his voice, his language ability — and brought him into the media apparatus in a very big way,” Amarasingam said.
“And he stuck with that media apparatus to the very end.”
Initially, Khalifa said, three foreigners ran the ISIS media office in Raqqa: himself, an American and a German. They put out “basically daily news” based on reports from ISIS fighters on the battlefield.
It wasn’t what he had intended but it was what ISIS needed and he saw it as a duty, which he said he performed “for the sake of my faith.” He said he didn’t enjoy it “100 per cent” but decided, “if this is where they need me then fine.”
With his obvious Canadian accent, Khalifa became a matter of speculation upon the release in September 2014 of Flames of War, an hour-long video that showed captured Syrian soldiers digging their own graves and then being executed by gunfire.
That was followed by audio statements in which he claimed the Paris attack for ISIS, referring to the mass murder of 131 civilians as a “blessed onslaught” and threatening coalition countries with more violence.
Khalifa expressed no remorse for his role in creating propaganda promoting terrorist attacks, explaining that the killings raised the issue of “collateral damage,” which he said was “not an issue that’s specific to the West.”
He said ISIS adhered to a set of “rules,” one being that women and children were not targeted. Reminded that ISIS attacks had all targeted random civilians, including women and children, he said men of fighting age were not considered civilians, while women and children were “collateral damage.”
When terrorists attacked in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa in October 2014, killing two Canadian Forces members, Khalifa was indifferent, he said.
“It’s not like I still saw myself as a Canadian.”
He married a woman he met in Raqqa through ISIS and they had three children, but he said they had not attended ISIS schools because they were too young. His wife would stay at home with the kids and visit other women in Raqqa.
He encountered few other Canadians in ISIS, he claimed. He said he met Collin and Gregory Gordon, brothers from Calgary, and confirmed they were dead. Likewise, he said Calgary’s Farah Shirdon and Ahmad Waseem of Windsor had also died.
As ISIS began to lose Raqqa to the Kurdish forces, Khalifa retreated with the senior ranks of the terror group, which Amarasingam said was an indication of the importance ISIS leaders attached to their propaganda wing.
“As Raqqa fell, as Mayadin fell and they moved south to Deir Ezzor, the leadership made it clear that the English-language media arm, and the media arm in general, was quite important for the survival of the organization.”
Khalifa said ISIS was adamant that he should continue his work.
“If you’re constantly releasing news about yourself, you’re still out there. If you don’t have any news, nobody knows you exist. So it was seen as a priority for that reason.”
But he was eventually trapped with ISIS close to the Iraq border and captured following a gunfight with Kurdish forces.
The former Toronto tech support worker now shares a prison room with 19 others.
Neither the RCMP nor any other Canadian officials have contacted him, he said. The only foreign agency he has spoken to is the FBI, which he said had interviewed him.
“It was just basically information about how I came, where I was within Islamic State territory, what I did, what my role was, my job, that sort of thing,” he said, speaking on condition he was not videotaped.
His East African wife and their kids were at a camp for ISIS families. He said he didn’t know what came next.
“And so there is even less reason to stress over it,” Khalifa said. “It’s kind of just like, whatever happens, happens.”
He denied allegations he was the executioner seen in the Flames of War video but would not say who it was except that executions were performed by battalions such as the Anwar Al Awlaki Brigade — which was allegedly led by another Canadian, Abu Bakr Kanadi.
Asked about being brought back to Canada and put on trial, he said that would be “a dead end for me.” Because his wife is not Canadian, she would not be allowed into Canada. And he would be on a no-fly list and unable to leave Canada.
“OK then, how am I supposed to get back to my family, right? So that’s basically one of my main concerns.”
While he said he did not see himself as a threat, he said he wouldn’t blame Canadians for seeing him as one. He said he still considered himself a member of ISIS, and pointed out that he had not surrendered.
But there are “certain things you have to understand,” he said. “There might be something that you believe is acceptable, right, according to your faith or according to whatever you decide to follow. But you yourself might not want to do it.”
“If you ask me about martyrdom operations, yeah, I believe they’re correct and they’re acceptable. Does that mean that I would do it? Me personally, I would shy away from it. I have my reasons.”
Asked if he would counsel others to conduct such attacks, he declined to answer. Reminded he had, in the video and audio propaganda he produced for ISIS, he acknowledged that.
“Right, yeah, I did.”