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Woman arrested in Toronto area for allegedly trying to join ISIS

Click to play video 'Terrorism charges against women are rare in Canada: expert' Terrorism charges against women are rare in Canada: expert
Terrorism charges against women are rare in Canada: expert

Ten months after returning to Canada from Turkey, a Toronto-area woman has been arrested for allegedly attempting to join the so-called Islamic State.

Haleema Mustafa, a resident of Markham, Ont., was taken into custody at around noon on Wednesday and was to appear in court Thursday to face charges.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada said Mustafa faced two terrorism counts: leaving Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group and participation in the activities of a terrorist group.

A woman who answered the door at the family home declined to comment. Mustafa’s husband, Ikar Mao, was charged with the same two offences last December and remains in custody.

“These charges stem from RCMP allegations that Ikar Mao travelled to Turkey to join the terrorist group ISIS in June 2019,” the RCMP said in a statement Thursday.

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“At the time of Ikar Mao’s travel to Turkey, RCMP INSET believe he was accompanied by his wife, Haleema Mustafa.”

Read more: ISIS suspect to remain in custody after Ontario judge rejects bail

Few women have faced terrorism charges in Canada.

While women have a long history of involvement in terrorist groups, Canadian authorities have charged just three women with terrorism since 2013 — and only one of them was convicted.

“In Canada, there’s only been a handful of women who have been charged with terrorism offences,’’ said Jessica Davis, the author of Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State.

Rehab Dughmosh tried to join ISIS in 2016 but was stopped by Turkish authorities. Sent back to Canada, she planned an attack at a Toronto Canadian Tire and was convicted in 2019.

In Montreal, Sabrine Djermane was charged with attempting to join ISIS with her husband El Mahdi Jamali, but was acquitted in 2018. A terrorism peace bond was later imposed on the couple.

Although unrelated to ISIS, Amanda Korody was found guilty by a jury in 2015 of attempting to bomb Canada Day celebrations in Victoria, but a judge ruled she and her husband were entrapped by police.

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“So in general, the charges and convictions are quite rare, but that doesn’t necessarily represent how many women are actively involved in terrorism in Canada,” Davis said.

“That number is far bigger.”

Click to play video 'Exclusive: ISIS fighters’ Canadian wives want to return home' Exclusive: ISIS fighters’ Canadian wives want to return home
Exclusive: ISIS fighters’ Canadian wives want to return home

Canadian security officials report that about 20 per cent of the extremists who have left Canada to take part in terrorist activities were women, and that some have taken their children to conflict zones.

With its promise of a state governed by a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, ISIS attracted thousands of women, including at least two dozen from Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.

Women and girls as young as 13 have come under police investigation for trying to leave Canada to join ISIS. Three teenagers, aged 15, 18 and 19, flew out of Toronto in 2014 after communicating with an ISIS recruiter.

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Their parents reported them missing and the RCMP worked with police in Egypt and Turkey to have them turned back once they landed in the Middle East. When they returned to Canada, they were not charged.

An Edmonton woman who returned to Canada from Somalia was also not charged, although the Canadian Security Intelligence Service described her as “committed” to ISIS and a “senior member” of Al-Shabab. Instead, the government seized her passport.

Read more: Among Canadian ISIS detainees in Syria, women far outnumber men

Queen’s University Professor Amarnath Amarasingam has identified 22 women who left for Syria and Iraq, although not all made it. By contrast, 59 were men, meaning women account for more than a quarter of the total number of Canadians.

Women also make up the bulk of adult Canadians held at camps for foreign ISIS detainees captured by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. None have yet been charged by Canadian authorities.

“It is often unclear which roles women who travel to Syria perform,” said the government’s 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, which called the participating of women one of the “emerging issues in terrorism.”

“The most commonly held assumption is that women travel abroad to marry terrorists, but the reasons for travel and eventual roles vary.

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“Some may occupy secondary roles within terrorist groups, while in other cases they appear to be training and taking part in combat. Some women have also facilitated the travel of others.”

Click to play video 'Canadian woman detained in Syria says she accepts she could face prosecution' Canadian woman detained in Syria says she accepts she could face prosecution
Canadian woman detained in Syria says she accepts she could face prosecution

In interviews with Global News, Canadian women who were part of ISIS have downplayed their involvement in atrocities, portraying themselves as wives to ISIS fighters, housewives, mothers and victims.

But a report by the British think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said the portrayal of women in ISIS as “jihadist brides” was “reductionist and above all, incorrect.”

“The responsibility of Western women under ISIS-controlled territory is first and foremost to be a good wife to the jihadist husband they are betrothed to and to become a mother to the next generation of jihadism,” the ISD report said.

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“However, these women are also playing crucial roles in propaganda dissemination and recruitment of other women through online platforms, both directly and indirectly.”

Photos posted on social media sites have shown ISIS women brandishing military-style firearms. Women also recruited for ISIS on social media, kept people enslaved and enforced the terror group’s brutal code of conduct.

Read more: Edmonton woman ‘committed’ to ISIS ‘facilitated extremist activities,’ secret documents allege

Details of the case against Mustafa and Mao cannot be reported due to a publication ban. Turkish authorities arrested them north of a border town that was once a popular hub for foreign extremists crossing into Syria to join ISIS.

They were deported back to Canada in October. While Mao, 22, was arrested soon after returning to his parents’ home in Guelph, Ont., the investigation into Mustafa, 23, proved more difficult, delaying the charges.

“We have seen women in roles as recruiters and as propagandists in the Islamic State,” said Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence and a former senior strategic analyst at CSIS.

“In fact, some very prominent women have played very fundamental roles in recruiting, specifically young women, to come and join the Islamic State,” she added.

“In terms of what we’re seeing for prosecutions of women, there is a disparity in the aggregate numbers that we’re seeing,” Davis told Global News.

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“So for many countries, we don’t see any prosecutions of women, some of them are just being put directly into reintegration and rehabilitation programs. Other countries we are seeing some of that prosecution, so in the United States and U.K., women are being prosecuted – not to the same extent as men and there is a disparity in terms of the length of the sentences, the severity of the punishment,” she said.

“So there is a little bit of a gender gap there.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca