Prosecutors have approved charges against a captured Canadian ISIS fighter, according to documents that show how federal officials have dealt with citizens detained in Syria.
The approved charges are the first known to have been authorized against a Canadian member of the so-called Islamic State caught in Syria.
They were disclosed in records released to Global News by Global Affairs Canada (GAC) under the Access to Information Act.
“The Ali charge package has now been approved by PPSC,” read the ‘secret’ report by GAC’s Task Force on International Critical Incidents.
PPSC is the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which handles terrorism cases.
The only Canadian ISIS member named Ali who is in custody in Syria is Mohammed Ali, a 30-year-old resident of Mississauga, Ont., captured by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters shortly before the June 25, 2018 report was distributed.
Also known as Abu Turab Al-Kanadi, Ali has told Global News he was part of an ISIS sniper team. On social media, he called for terrorist attacks in Canada, gave advice on how to join ISIS and joked about beheadings.
“Can’t wait for the day ISIS beheads the first American soldier :D #SoccerAnyone,” one of his Tweets read.
In an interview following his capture in 2018, he said he had “learned a lot of things … 2014 was a long time ago, different time. Killing of civilians is not really justified Islamically. I haven’t seen any justification yet. It doesn’t really help anyone because … it’s not really a good idea.”
Despite the approval of charges more than three years ago, Ali remains in detention in northeast Syria and there is no sign the Canadian government has attempted to bring him back to Canada to stand trial.
His wife, former Vancouver resident Rida Jabbar, and their children are being held at a camp for ISIS families.
The RCMP, whose Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Toronto conducted the investigation, declined to comment, citing “privacy concerns and the potential risk to any ongoing investigations.”
Charge approval is only the first stage of prosecution. Criminal charges must then be filed in court. That does not appear to have happened yet, likely because Ali remains in Syria.
“The PPSC has no information to provide at this time,” spokesperson Sabrina Nemis responded when asked about the documents.
“As a matter of policy, the PPSC cannot confirm or deny charges or investigations unless or until charges are laid.”
National security law expert Leah West said the approval of charges “flies in the face of everything authorities have been saying in response to these questions since 2018.”
In defending its decision not to repatriate the Canadians detained in Syria to face charges, the government has said that finding evidence to prove what they did in Syria was challenging, she said.
“Consistently that was the message all the way up to the prime minister,” said West, a former federal government national security lawyer.
“This proves the point many of us have been making for years, that there is enough to proceed with charges.”
The prosecution of Ali was disclosed in 750 pages of government documents on Canadians detained in Syria that were released to Global News after almost three years, following a complaint that was upheld by the information commissioner.
The records were heavily redacted, but provide some insights.
They indicate that in 2017, family members and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told GAC about “a number of Canadian citizens who are currently in Syria and seeking to return to Canada.”
“These individuals are alleged to have travelled to Syria to join ISIS,” read a memo to the minister at the time.
The Canadians were in territory controlled by the Syrian regime, ISIS and the Kurdish Union Democratic Party (PYD), whose fighters control northeast Syria.
In July 2017, GAC made contact with Kurdish authorities, who “confirmed they had Canadians in their custody,” according to the memo, classified Secret-Canadian Eyes Only.
The Kurds sent GAC a list of Canadians in their custody in January 2018. They also invited a Canadian government delegation to Syria to discuss the issue.
But GAC declined for security reasons, calling Syria a “no-go” zone.
“The security risks and political uncertainty are simply too unpredictable, with very little ability to respond to help our people should something go wrong,” a diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Baghdad wrote in February 2018.
Instead, on March 13, 2018, Canadian diplomats met with Kurdish authorities in Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq, to confirm the names and identities of Canadians in their custody and “seek assurances in relation to treatment and conditions of detention.”
The Canadian representatives asked for “direct telephone consular access” to the detainees and medical care for them.
The GAC officials also handed over care packages for the women and children that included Play-Doh, stickers and sugarless Swedish candy, the documents show.
A diplomat later described the two-hour meeting as “cordial” and wrote “Canadians confirmed…and more.”
“We registered the consular points on well-being and went through specific needs of the individuals, and transferred some basic necessities (incl. vitamins, baby formula, bodysuits, hats, pyjamas, blankets),” he wrote.
“We also sought consular access with request for calls to the Canadian adults they are holding. They promised to follow-up on our request. We provided the WhatsApp consular number.”
But a Kurdish official said that following the meeting, the Canadian government stopped discussions about repatriating the detainees “and we don’t know why.”
Aside from worries about their own safety, Canadian officials were also concerned about what could happen to the detainees if they crossed from Syria into northern Iraq, the documents show.
One email said the Iraqi government’s official position was that foreign ISIS fighters would be dealt with in Iraq.
“This includes capital punishment for some terrorism-related offences,” it said.
Even if the detainees made it to the Canadian diplomat post in Erbil, Iraq, they might not be able to return to Canada because of international no-fly lists, one official explained in an email.
At least 14 Canadian adults are being held at camps for ISIS detainees, as well as a few dozen children of Canadians, many of them born in ISIS territory. Only three Canadians have been released to date — two children and one woman.
Canadian officials have confirmed the woman is in Erbil, waiting to come back to Canada.
None of the detainees yet face any formal charges in Canada, but Global News reported last month the RCMP was preparing charges against Mohamed Khalifa, a former Toronto IT worker known as the “voice of ISIS” because he narrated the terrorist group’s execution videos.
In a 2018 interview with Global News, Ali said he flew to Turkey in 2014 and crossed into Syria, where he was trained by ISIS and eventually joined a sniper team.
He frequently posted pro-ISIS material on social media.
The only other detainee named in the documents is Jack Letts, who has never lived in Canada but has Canadian citizenship through his father. The documents show GAC asked about his whereabouts and requested consular access.