A former Toronto IT worker, known as the “voice of ISIS” because he narrated its gruesome execution videos, is being investigated by the RCMP for “serious terrorism offences,” a court document unsealed Tuesday reveals.
The RCMP alleged in the top-secret affidavit it had reason to believe Mohammed Khalifa, a Canadian citizen captured in Syria by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in January 2019, had committed four terrorism offences.
He remains in custody in Syria.
The evidence against him includes papers that were uncovered by the U.S. military in Raqqa after ISIS was ousted from its former capital in October 2017, the RCMP affidavit alleged.
Details of the investigation are contained in a document the RCMP filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to obtain a production order requiring Global News to hand over recordings of its interview with Khalifa.
The affidavit was signed by Const. Waleed Abousamak, a member of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, on Nov. 14, 2019, but Global News was unable to report on the matter until now.
The RCMP has also served production orders on two Toronto companies where Khalifa allegedly worked, Kelly Services and CompuCom, as well as Seneca College, where he studied, and his banks, Scotiabank and TD.
“The RCMP is investigating Mr. Khalifa for serious terrorism offences,” Const. Abousamak wrote in his affidavit, which alleged Khalifa had been a “fighting soldier,” commander and employee of the ISIS Central Media Bureau.
“Among other things, he was the English narrator for many of ISIS’s most violent and inciting propaganda videos, including the notorious 2014 video known as ‘The Flames of War’ which depicted mass execution of prisoners by ISIS fighters,” he wrote.
According to the RCMP affidavit, there are reasonable grounds to believe Khalifa left Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group and that he participated in a terrorist group, which are both terrorism offences.
Khalifa also committed an indictable offence for the benefit of a terrorist group and “did counsel other persons to commit a terrorism offence,” Const. Abousamak alleged in the affidavit and information.
The document marks the first time the RCMP has confirmed it is preparing to lay charges against specific Canadian ISIS members detained in Syria, and shows how paperwork found on the battlefield is playing a role in investigations.
But it also suggests that, unlike its international policing partners, the RCMP has not sent its own investigators to Syria to interview the Canadian suspects, and has instead relied on interviews conducted by journalists.
While Global News fought the production order in court, arguing RCMP investigators had the option of interviewing Khalifa themselves, the judge ruled that was unreasonable because Syria was too dangerous for them.
“They would be going with the specific goal of investigating crimes committed by ISIS. I am not satisfied that the local government and security forces could protect them if they did so,” the judge wrote.
He ordered Global News to hand over recordings of its October 2019 interview with Khalifa, conducted at a Kurdish military base in Syria.
During the interview, Khalifa admitted to narrating the Flames of War video, and said he still considered himself a member of ISIS.
Khalifa, who called himself Abu Ridwan Al Kanadi, was taken prisoner following a gun battle with Kurdish fighters more than two years ago, and is among more than a dozen Canadian adults still held by them.
Global News is aware of 14 Canadian adults in custody at makeshift prisons and camps in northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch has reported there are 21, as well as 26 children.
None yet face any charges in Canada.
The affidavit described how the RCMP opened an investigation in the weeks after the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by coalition airstrikes, recaptured Raqqa from ISIS in October 2017.
On Nov. 20, 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense “provided the RCMP with two documents recovered by coalition forces in the area of Raqqa, Syria,” according to the affidavit.
The first document was a Dec. 26, 2015, letter from the ISIS Central Media Bureau to the “Communication Amir,” or commander, urgently requesting a landline phone for “Abu Radwan Al Kanadi.”
Al Kanadi means The Canadian.
A second document, dated Dec. 6, 2015, was a “phone use contract” signed by Al Kanadi. It was stamped by the ISIS Communications Department General Director, Abu Ammar, the RCMP alleged.
ISIS members reportedly became wary about using cellphones in 2014, after it became known international coalition forces were using the devices to track and target them for airstrikes.
Unable to determine Al Kanadi’s true identity, the RCMP closed its investigation — until Jan. 14, 2019, when Global News reported a Canadian ISIS fighter had been caught in northeastern Syria.
Although he falsely identified himself as an Ethiopian named “Mohammed Abdallah Mohammed,” Global News reported on Jan. 15 he was likely the Canadian (Khalifa) who went by Abu Ridwan and was a narrator of ISIS execution videos.
Two days later, RCMP investigators met with the mother and sister of Khalifa, whose profile closely matched that of the foreign ISIS fighter captured in Syria. Shown a photo of the detainee, his mother confirmed it was her son, the affidavit alleged.
The family told police Khalifa was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Rome before arriving in Canada in 1988 or ’89, when he was aged six. They described him as a “happy son” and “not an angry person.”
During high school, he spent a summer in Egypt, they allegedly told police. He returned to Egypt again after graduation to “learn Arabic so that he could study the Quran better,” the RCMP wrote.
He came back to Canada after two years and took an Information Technology course at college in Toronto, the family said, adding that while he was religious, he did not force his beliefs on his sister.
“Mohammed Khalifa was devout in his faith but respected his sister’s decision not to wear hijab and dress and live in a more Western way,” according to the RCMP affidavit.
On Aug. 3, 2013, Khalifa came home from a night shift and told his mother he was going to Egypt for a two-week vacation. But she noticed he had packed too heavily for a short trip, and two days after leaving, he emailed his sister and said he was actually in Turkey and was on his way to Syria.
She tried to talk him out of it, arguing Syria was dangerous and there were other ways to help people, but he responded by sending her a video of the Al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, and she blocked him.
His mother told the RCMP Khalifa had stashed $16,000 in his room for her. She said he last phoned her on Jan. 14, 2019, the day after he was captured in Syria. He told her “everything is fine,” the affidavit said.
To verify that he was the long-sought voice of ISIS, the RCMP compared the signature on Khalifa’s 2011 Canadian passport application with the “Abu Radwan Al Kanadi” signature on the ISIS documents and concluded they were similar.
A month after the Khalifa was captured, a source said he had admitted to his role in ISIS propaganda videos. Around the same time, Khalifa admitted his true identity to New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi.
He also acknowledged having voiced the notorious Flames of War video, which shows prisoners digging their own graves and then being executed with bullets to the back of the head. In the video, he called ISIS killings part of the “war against disbelief.”
RCMP investigators interviewed Khalifa’s father on March 11, 2019. Shown a video recorded by Kurdish forces in Syria, he identified the captured Canadian as his son, the affidavit said.
The father said he “would never have imagined” his son going overseas. “He had no friends. His father even mentioned that he did not appear to have any interest in women or getting married,” the RCMP wrote.
Meanwhile, on April 18, 2019, investigators received a report from Dr. Colleen Kavanaugh, a forensic audio expert at the RCMP’s Audio and Video Analysis Unit in Ottawa.
Using “detailed auditory-acoustic phonetic analysis,” she compared Khalifa’s voice with the voice in the Flames of War video, and concluded the “voice quality profiles were nearly identical.”
The affidavit mentions other “sensitive information received from a foreign government agency,” but the entire appendix detailing that information was blacked out before it was provided to Global News.
After Global News published its story about Khalifa, the RCMP convinced a judge to grant a production order forcing Global News to hand over its audio recordings of the interview, and also to seal the matter on the grounds publicity could interfere with the investigation.
The RCMP argued that the court should seal the case because if Khalifa were to escape, “he may choose not to return to Canada if he knows we are investigating him and have obtained copies of his incriminating statements.”
“Mr. Khalifa is presently in foreign custody,” Const. Abousamak added. “In circumstances like this, there may be some risk of mistreatment if it is publicly disclosed that the RCMP alleges the detainee has committed terrorism offences.”