Ontario man pleads guilty to trying to join ISIS, charges against wife to be dropped

Ikar Mao of Guelph, Ont., faces terrorism charges. Global News/LinkedIn

An Ontario man admitted Monday he left Toronto with his wife almost two years ago to join the so-called Islamic State.

At a court appearance in Brampton, Ont., Ikar Mao, 23, pleaded guilty to leaving Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group.

But federal prosecutors dropped a second count against Mao, and also said they would be staying charges against his wife Haleema Mustafa.

The couple left Canada together in 2019 and were caught near the Syrian border. Both had faced the same two terrorism charges after returning to Canada.

“Mao undertook the trip to Turkey in July 2019 with the express purpose of crossing the border into Syria, and eventually moving to ISIS controlled territory,” according to an agreed statement of facts.

“Mao did this with the intention of making himself available to ISIS and/or for the benefit of ISIS.”

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In a statement, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada said staying the charges against Mustafa was “appropriate in the circumstances given her role, the evidence against her, and the public safety protection assessment.”

“The RCMP was consulted. Ms. Mustafa was in custody for approximately eight months pending resolution.”

But the agreed facts also she had paid for most of the trip, having transferred more than $3,000 from her personal account to a join account shortly before they left Canada. The money was used to buy the plane tickets the couple used.

The case returns to court on Wednesday.

Mustafa and Mao married in 2018 and lived in Markham, Ont.

The agreed statement of facts read into the court record said that on June 18, 2019, Mao downloaded a copy of a manual titled “Hijrah to the Islamic State: What to Packup, Who to Contact, Where to Go.”

Hijrah is Arabic for “migration.”

Four days later, Mao’s Amazon account was used to buy various items the ISIS guide had recommended travellers should purchase.

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They included a Swiss army knife, solar charger, tactical flashlight, gloves and a first-aid kit, Mao acknowledged in the statement.

The couple sold their car on the way to Toronto’s Pearson airport on June 27, 2019, and boarded an Air Canada flight to Tunisia, before flying to Istanbul on July 3.

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

Messages sent to family from Mustafa’s “devices” falsely claimed they were still in Tunisia, the agreed facts said.

“These messages were part of a plan to conceal their whereabouts from family members.”

On July 11, 2019, Mao’s computer was used to send an email to their families saying they had decided to leave Canada to make “hijrah.”

While the term means migration, it was used by ISIS to mean migration to the Islamic State, according to the agreed facts.

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Upon receiving the email, Mustafa’s family contacted the RCMP, which tracked the couple to Sanliurfa, Turkey, where local police arrested them.

Although a Turkish court acquitted them of being members of ISIS, when Mao returned to Canada on Oct. 19, 2019, the RCMP seized his electronic devices.

On them, police found ISIS propaganda, searches for “clerics connected to ISIS,” and a Twitter message about crossing “from the Turkish side to the Islamic State.”

A Telegram account associated with his phone had also downloaded videos of “ISIS imagery,” according to agreed facts.

A notebook he was carrying contained entries consistent with the advice contained in “Hijrah to the Islamic State,” according to the agreed facts.

Police put Mao under surveillance and following what prosecutors called developments that concerned police around Remembrance Day, he was arrested on a terrorism peace bond.

He was released, but on Dec. 5 he was charged with two terrorism offences and taken back into custody.

Musafa was arrested in Markham on Aug. 26, 2020, and charged with the same two counts of terrorism.

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They were scheduled to be tried together before the Superior Court of Justice when the resolution of the charges was announced.

The case brings the number of terrorism convictions in Canada to 30, according to figures compiled by University of Calgary law professor Michael Nesbitt.

Following the guilty plea, Crown Howard Piafsky said Mao had committed a “very serious criminal act,” but also acknowledged his plan “was not sophisticated.”

Piafsky said Mao had not expressed any intention to commit violence, nor had he glorified violence online or attempted to recruit others, aside from his wife.

Meanwhile, his lawyer Nader Hasan said Mao had experienced “harsh” conditions in custody because of COVID-19.

He was also subjected to “racist and demeaning comments” by guards and strip searches, the defence alleged.

He wants Mao released on time served.

Click to play video: 'Guelph man charged with terrorism-related offences'
Guelph man charged with terrorism-related offences

The government calls those who leave the country to support overseas terrorist activities Canadian Extremist Travellers, or CETs.

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“The threat of extremist travellers is significant and presents difficult challenges to both Canada and our allies,” according to the Public Safety Canada website.

Following the rise of ISIS, Canadian extremists began to make their way to the region to join the terrorist group.

Kurdish authorities are detaining a handful of Canadian men and women who were caught in Syria and are accused of belonging to ISIS.

But despite mounting pressures to bring them back to Canada to stand trial, Canadian authorities have not yet filed charges against any of them.

Documents released to Global News under the Access to Information Act underscore the challenges of prosecuting so-called Canadian Extremist Travellers.

“Intelligence is not always collected to meet an evidentiary threshold, and cannot always be relied upon to support criminal prosecution,” reads a document, prepared by Canada for a G7 gathering in 2018, as the fight against ISIS was reaching a climax.

“In cases where intelligence is employed, public prosecutions risk exposing sensitive sources and methods, which can be particularly challenging when the intelligence has been provided by another country, or when the chain of custody has presented complex challenges.”

New technology also allows terrorists to “conceal their communications and evade detection by police and intelligence agencies,” it added.

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“The ability to intercept terrorist communications is no longer always possible due to strong encryption, posing a significant challenge to countries’ abilities to investigate and charge threat actors.”

Canada considers returning extremist travellers potential security threats, given their commitment to groups like ISIS and their foreign experience.

“Some higher-threat CETs possess battlefield experience and maintain networks of like-minded extremists, and could pose a security threat to Canada,” according to a declassified government report.

The 2020 report by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, released under the Access to Information Act, said those who had tried to join terror groups but failed were also a risk.

“Canada-based extremists who have been prevented from travelling also pose a heightened threat to the national security of Canada, given the possibility they could re-direct their efforts towards domestic attack planning.”

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