The Canadian Armed Forces has confirmed that one of its former reservists was killed after making his way to Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State.
Private Bilal Khan enlisted in the terrorist group shortly after he was released from the Canadian military in October 2014, a spokesperson said.
“We are aware that he travelled to Iraq in early 2015 and was killed in November 2015,” said Daniel Le Bouthillier, the Canadian Forces head of media relations.
A former member of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry in Hamilton, Ont., Khan is the only Canadian soldier known to have joined ISIS, he added.
The confirmation of his involvement followed an investigation by Canadian Forces National Counter-Intelligence Unit (CFNCIU).
The unit, which investigates threats posed by violent extremists in the military, determined Khan had joined ISIS after just over two years in the infantry reserve.
The CFNCIU investigated whether Khan had “previously presented a radicalization threat within the CAF,” Le Bouthillier said.
“It was determined that he did not, nor had he been radicalized by an individual within the CAF.”
The Canadian military has been cracking down on extremists within its ranks after several members were linked to far-right hate groups.
Right-wing extremist groups have been actively recruiting military members, but the Canadian Forces has not been a common pathway to ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on foreign fighters, said he had never heard of Khan and agreed he was the first former Canadian soldier known to have joined ISIS.
Unlike other extremist groups, ISIS has not openly recruited members of the military, said Amarasingam, an assistant professor at the Queen’s University School of Religion and Political Studies.
“We shouldn’t really be surprised,” said Canadian Anti-Hate Network chair Bernie Farber, who has raised concerns about right-wing extremists in the military.
He said the Canadian Forces now recognized that extremists viewed the armed forces as a training ground, and that groups were seeking out military members because of their skills and experience.
“As somebody with training like that — and Canadian reserve training is excellent — he would have been welcomed with open arms,” said Tim Fletcher, who spent 36 years in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
“I never knew the guy, although we might have overlapped initially,” said Fletcher, who left in July 2012 and speaks for the RHLI Veterans Association.
“I can’t say that I applaud his choices,” he added. “How he could take up arms against former comrades is disturbing to me. I can’t begin to understand that motivation.”
Khan enrolled in the RHLI, also known as the Fighting Rileys, in February 2012. “He had no operational deployments with the CAF,” Le Bouthillier said.
The primary reserve unit of the 31 Canadian Brigade group, 4th Canadian Division, the RHLI was formed in 1862.
“Our task is to augment our Regular Force with well-trained and highly motivated infantry soldiers,” according to its website.
“To keep our soldiers in fighting shape, we train regularly on a wide range of skill sets, weapon systems, and equipment.”
Khan left the military a month after Canada joined the international coalition fighting against ISIS in September 2014.
His departure also coincided with the October 2014 attacks that killed a Canadian soldier in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and another at the war memorial in Ottawa.
Despite having undergone basic military training, he did not last long in combat. He died within months of arriving in ISIS-controlled territory.
Most of the dozens of Canadians who joined ISIS have been killed, some in airstrikes, which were conducted by the international coalition and Russia.
A handful survived and were captured by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters during the defeat of ISIS in Syria in January 2019.
Four Canadian women suspected of involvement in ISIS were flown back to Canada from Syria by the government in April.
Three of them were arrested on terrorism peace bonds and released. Up to three more are expected to return to Alberta and Quebec in the coming weeks.
While some of the Canadian citizens in ISIS were notorious for their social media profiles, Khan was until recently an unknown.
The only other Canadian veterans who travelled to Syria and Iraq during the conflict were volunteers who fought against ISIS alongside Kurdish forces.
Recruits with military experience can strengthen extremist groups by using their weapons skills to conduct attacks or train others.
CBS News reported that 81 of the defendants charged with storming the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, had ties to the military.
In Canada, a heavily-armed reservist, Corey Hurren, rammed his truck through the gates of Rideau Hall on July 2, 2020, because he was angry at government policies on guns and COVID-19.
Another reserve member, Patrik Mathews, was a member of the neo-Nazi group The Base, which called for racist violence. He was arrested and convicted in the United States.
The Canadian Forces adopted a new policy framework in 2020 that said it was “unacceptable” for members to participate in hate groups.
The military also launched a new system to track and monitor “suspected incidents of hateful conduct within the organization.”