A Canadian woman was released from a camp for ISIS detainees in northeast Syria on the weekend, a lawyer representing her family said on Monday.
The woman, believed to have left for Syria in 2014, was taken to Erbil in northern Iraq, setting the stage for her return to Canada.
She is the first Canadian adult to leave the makeshift camps and prisons for suspected ISIS members captured in Syria during the conflict.
“Global Affairs Canada is aware that a Canadian citizen has crossed from Syria into Iraq,” the government said in a statement.
“The government of Canada was not involved in securing the individual’s exit from northeastern Syria,” Patricia Skinner, a Global Affairs Canada spokesperson, said.
“The safety and security of Canadians always remain the utmost priority for the government of Canada while meeting necessary legal obligations. Due to provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.”
What awaits the woman upon her arrival in Canada in the coming weeks remains uncertain. She could face terrorism charges, a peace bond, or no action at all.
Asked what it was doing to prepare for her return and whether she faced any charges, the RCMP said it worked with other government agencies to manage the threat posed by extremist travellers.
“The safety and security of citizens is of the utmost importance to the RCMP, and we take any threat to the security of Canadians seriously. Each individual case must be assessed based on the evidence presented.”
But sources told Global News the RCMP was not notified about the case until Sunday, leaving little time to prepare.
Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon said the woman is the mother of a four-year-old girl who was brought back to Canada from Syria in March.
The mother’s departure from the Syrian camp was facilitated by a “third party,” specifically former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, Greenspon said.
Galbraith was also responsible for getting the woman’s daughter out of Kurdish custody, Greenspon said. Galbraith could not be reached for comment.
Greenspon said Global Affairs Canada was obligated to facilitate the mother’s return to Canada.
The RCMP has been investigating Canadians caught in Syria, in an attempt to have charges ready should they return.
But police have also acknowledged the challenge of finding usable evidence about events in Syria and Iraq.
At least eight remaining Canadian women, five men and several dozen children are believed to be detained by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Only two have been brought back to Canada to date, both children. None of the Canadians yet face any formal charges. Two have admitted to their roles in ISIS to Global News.
The Liberal government has taken the position that northeast Syria is too dangerous for consular officials, so it is unable to provide travel documents for the Canadians.
That has left the detainees in a network of prisons and detention camps operated by the SDF, Kurdish rebels who battled ISIS and captured some 100,000 fighters and their families.
But Greenspon said the case showed it was possible to get the Canadians out. “It’s totally doable, and it’s been doable for 20 other countries,” he said.
The SDF’s General Command said in a statement Sunday that resolving the issue of ISIS detainees was key to preventing the terrorist group’s resurgence.
Human Rights Watch alleges there are 47 Canadians detained in the region, and has called on the government to bring them home as a “matter of urgent priority.”
But returning them is unpopular among Canadians, and the government has struggled with what are known as Canadian Extremist Travellers.
Last week, an Ontario man who admitted he left Canada in 2019 to join ISIS was released after just over 18 months in custody.
Charges against his wife were stayed by prosecutors, although she travelled with him and the Crown argued in court it was a “joint venture.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office said the government took “with the utmost seriousness the threats posed by travelling extremists and returnees.”
“Those who leave Canada to fight for terrorism are utterly reprehensible and when the evidence warrants it, our goal is to arrest, charge, prosecute and convict them,” said Blair’s spokesperson Madeleine Gomery.
“We have put in place steps to protect Canadians against the threat of extremist travellers. Among these steps, our priority is arrest and prosecution to the fullest extent possible under the law,” she said.
“While investigations are being carried out, surveillance and threat reduction measures are used to manage public safety.”