Why are the Canadian women of ISIS coming home without being charged?

Four of the nine Canadian women who have returned to Canada from camps for ISIS families in Syria.
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Why do Canadian ISIS women rarely face charges back home?
VIDEO: Why do Canadian ISIS women rarely face charges back home? – Sep 14, 2023

The diehards of ISIS were surrounded and making their last stand in Baghuz, Syria, in 2019 when a Canadian who had married into the terrorist group surrendered.

U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters took Kimberly Polman to a prison called Roj Camp, where she told Global News she understood she might be put on trial once she returned to Canada.

“I’m not above the law,” she said.

Four years later, Polman is back in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, but she has not been charged for her alleged involvement in ISIS.

Neither have almost all the other Canadian women of ISIS, who have come home from Syria without being charged with any crimes.

Women made up 20 per cent of the roughly 100 Canadians who left to join ISIS as it committed brutal atrocities in Syria and Iraq, and called on its supporters to attack Western countries.

But few of them are being held to account in Canada’s courts.

Toronto woman speaks to Global News from prison camp in Syria, 2018. She returned to Canada in April but was not charged. Stewart Bell/Global News

As the trial of a Calgary man accused of joining ISIS is scheduled to begin next month, a Global News review of court proceedings has found that Canadian women who lived under ISIS are rarely being charged.

Nine women have returned to Canada from Syria with the help of the federal government, most recently in July. All were captured during the war against ISIS.


But just one has been charged, Montreal resident Oumaima Chouay.

Four other women have been charged with terrorism since it became a crime under Canadian law more than two decades ago, but their cases ended without convictions.

By contrast, 63 men have been charged, and about half convicted so far.

The only woman ever convicted of terrorism in Canada is Toronto-based ISIS supporter Rehab Dughmosh, who was found guilty in 2019 and has already served her prison sentence.

Not a single Canadian woman who lived under ISIS has yet been convicted.

Click to play video: 'Canadian woman detained in Syria says she accepts she could face prosecution'
Canadian woman detained in Syria says she accepts she could face prosecution

Although the government has warned that anyone who goes abroad to support terrorism will “face the full force of Canadian law,” that has not been the reality for women.

“Where there is sufficient evidence, arrest and/or prosecution to the full extent of the law is the first course of action,” Public Safety Canada responded in a statement.

“If there is insufficient evidence for charges, law enforcement and security and intelligence partners may leverage other tools to manage and mitigate any potential threats to national security.”

National security researchers have taken note of the prosecution statistics, and they are puzzled.

Leaving the country to participate in a terrorist group is a crime in Canada. The maximum sentence is 10 years.

But the charge is not being levied against women returning from Syria.

“We have very clear offences in terms of travelling to join a terrorist organization, participating in terrorist activity, facilitating a terrorist activity,” said Jessica Davis, president of Insight Threat Intelligence.

“And a lot of these women, a lot of the activities that they’ve engaged in could fit a lot of those definitions. And unfortunately, we’re just not seeing any charges,” she said.

While Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom have prosecuted dozens of women returning from overseas, Canada has little to show.

“So a lot of our allies are really leading the way, and Canada, I would say, is more of a laggard on this front.

A U.S. court sentenced American ISIS member Allison Fluke-Ekren to 20 years for terrorism. (Alexandria Sheriff’s Office via AP, File).

Evidence may be hard to come by because the women were less visible, said Prof. Leah West, a national security law expert at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“They weren’t on social media to the same extent as the men, advertising or advocating for ISIS’s behaviour.”

But women may also be benefiting from gender stereotypes that diminish their roles in global terrorism, making them less likely to be charged and more likely to receive lighter sentences.

“The colloquial term often used is ‘chick discount,’ that women are presumed to be not capable of engaging in terrorist activities. And if they do, it’s because they’ve been duped, they’ve been manipulated, they’re somehow naive or they were young and didn’t know what they were doing,” West said.

“There’s a lot of narratives to reduce their individual culpability for their actions that we don’t apply to men, even at the same age.”


The role of women in ISIS

Women have a long history in international terrorism, but the numbers surged after ISIS (also known as Daesh) emerged during the Syrian conflict.

A 2016 Public Safety Canada report noted the increased number of women “who have subscribed to Daesh’s ideology and travelled (or attempted to travel) abroad to join Daesh.”

Despite the common assumption that the women were simply marrying into ISIS, “the reasons for travel and eventual roles vary,” according to the 2016 Public Safety Canada report.

“Some may occupy secondary roles within terrorist groups, while in other cases they appear to be training and taking part in combat. Some women have also facilitated the travel of others.”

Islamic State propaganda video purporting to show female fighters.
Islamic State propaganda video purporting to show female fighters.

Female ISIS supporters have been implicated in everything from radicalization and recruitment to finance, propaganda, and violence.

The ISIS women’s battalion, Khatiba Nusaybah, trained recruits on AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and suicide belts.

Women abused minority Yazidis they kept as slaves, and were part of a conflict in which thousands of foreign extremists forced their ideology on Syrians, executed them, and triggered a refugee crisis.

“These women are often depicted as naive wives who simply followed their husbands to Syria,” said a statement released by the YPJ, the Kurdish female militia that guards the women captured during the fight against ISIS.

To push back against that stereotype, the YPJ released videos last month that it said were found on the phones of the prisoners, showing boys conducting paramilitary training and executions.

“Foreign ISIS women play a vital role in ensuring the ideological continuity of the organization,” the statement said.

Women were not only integral to ISIS, they were complicit in its genocide of Yazidis, said Canadian Yazidi Association president Jamileh Naso.

“This involvement spans logistics support, espionage, the facilitation of a new generation of fighters through childbirth, recruitment of both foreigners and locals, and even participation in combat roles as ISIS began to lose territory.”

Nadia Murad was kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS in 2014 when the terror group swept into Sinjar, Iraq, the Yazidi homeland. Photo by Alfred Yaghobzadeh/ABACAPRESS.COM.

If evidence of the involvement of Canadian women in such crimes is lacking, the question is why, said Davis, a former government analyst and author of Women in Modern Terrorism.

She said police may not be prioritizing the women because, in their view, they were “just going to join ISIS to have kids and be housewives.”

“However, even if this were true, it ignores the fact that, by travelling to join the Islamic State, these women were participating in the state-building activities of a terrorist group,” Davis said.

It’s possible the RCMP is too over-burdened to properly investigate, or that police and prosecutors don’t see the women as threats.

“And I think there’s some evidence in other jurisdictions, and maybe also in Canada, that women are really not perceived to be the same kind of threat or perceived to the same level of seriousness that men are when it comes to terrorism offenses,” Davis said.

As a result, “the low numbers of prosecutions and arrests in Canada really don’t follow global trends.”

Female YPJ guard at Al-Hol camp for ISIS families in Syria tries to quell protest as woman in green shouts about ‘jihad,’ 2019. Stewart Bell/Global News

The problem with that is that Canada’s terrorist activity is not being properly tracked, which has an impact on policy decisions and funding, Davis said.

Research also shows that convictions are a deterrent. “So the fact that Canada isn’t doing that in this space I think sends the wrong kind of message.”

As women are becoming “increasingly more visible in active terrorism,” failing to recognize the roles they play “leads to insufficient responses to the threat,” according to a summary of a March 2023 NATO session on gender stereotyping and counter-terrorism.

“Current measures often dismiss the agency of women, which can lead to the lack of prosecution against them, which in turn limits access to support, disengagement, and de-radicalization programs.”

“As active agents of terrorism, women can exploit existing gender norms and bias in order to offer a strategic advantage to their groups.”

The Canadian Tire plot

Rehab Dughmosh was among those not initially charged after she returned to Canada.

In 2016, the Syrian-born Canadian left to join ISIS and help with what she called its “jihad.” As she was flying to Turkey, her brother notified the RCMP, and she was turned back at Istanbul airport.

Upon landing back in Toronto, she claimed she was visiting family in Damascus and had no intention of joining ISIS.

It was a lie, she later admitted in court. But it worked: the RCMP closed the file.

Click to play video: 'Case of woman facing multiple terrorism charges back in court'
Case of woman facing multiple terrorism charges back in court

Dughmosh went home to her apartment in Toronto’s Scarborough district and soon began planning an attack.

On the afternoon of June 3, 2017, she left her building carrying two bags of weapons. She was headed for Cedarbrae Mall.

It was a Saturday and she figured the place would be packed. She was planning to hurt people. She wanted to scare Canadians.

At the Canadian Tire paint department, she charged at shoppers and staff with a gold driver club and pulled an eight-inch knife out from under her black robe.

“This is for ISIS,” she said.

Sabrine Djermane leaves the courthouse in Montreal after being acquitted of ISIS-related terrorism charges on Dec. 19, 2017. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Naima Tourabi was helping a customer when she saw a woman rushing at her with a golf club raised over her head.

She thought it was a prank until she heard Dughmosh praising god and ISIS. Before Dughmosh could strike, Tourabi grabbed her wrist and pushed her back, and other employees disarmed her.

As they waited for the police, they asked her what she was doing and recorded her responses on a phone.


“Why are you in here trying to stab people?”

“I’m from ISIS, ISIS is Muslims, stop killing Muslims,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Montreal woman who married ISIS fighter explains why she went to Syria'
Montreal woman who married ISIS fighter explains why she went to Syria

Under questioning the next day, Dughmosh told the police she was happy about what she’d done, but disappointed nobody had been seriously hurt.

Police searched her apartment and found a handwritten will that asked god “to grant me martyrdom” and take revenge on “criminal infidels.”

A Toronto judge focused on Dughmosh’s mental health and awarded what she acknowledged was a significantly discounted sentence of four years and 160 days — about half the average sentence handed to men.

The judge also expressed “optimism with respect to her rehabilitation and reintegration.”

But Dughmosh went on to threaten to kill prison staff, while demanding to be sent to Syria, and vowed to attack again, according to Parole Board of Canada records.

“If you release me from jail I will do another terrorist attack,” she wrote in a note to her parole officer.

Six years after her attack, Dughmosh has already completed her sentence.

Tourabi told Global News she was surprised to hear the only woman ever convicted of terrorism was already being freed from prison. “It’s kind of scary that she’s out because she might do it again.”

Kimberly Polman

While Dughmosh never made it to Syria, others did; at least 11 Canadian women were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces during the war against ISIS.

Dure Ahmed was taken into custody near the Battle of Baghuz, the shrinking ISIS enclave that ISIS was fighting to hang on to. She told CNN she was from Toronto and had followed her husband to Syria.

Although she said she was majoring in Middle East studies, she claimed she was oblivious to ISIS until she arrived in Syria.

“I didn’t really watch the news,” she said.

An Alberta woman taken prisoner around the same time gave a similar response, telling CNN she had followed her husband to Syria and was “not the kind of person who watched the news.”

A woman is frisked by a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter at a screening area after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, on March 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana).

Polman has said she was struggling with her mental health when she married an ISIS fighter she met online. She said he turned out to be abusive and her views on the group quickly soured.

In a 2019 interview with Global News from the tent city where she was held, she urged Ottawa to bring home Canadian detainees like her.

“We have a justice system. Put them in front of that system and let that system deal with them in a way that is actually much safer,” she said.

“If the Canadian judicial system feels that I did something that needs to be prosecuted then I have to come under the laws of the country that I’m born into, like any other person,” she said.

“On the other side, I would suggest there’s teaching and then there’s punishment. I’m not sure that punishing a person’s thinking is always the best way of dealing with a big issue.”


Polman is one of nine women Global Affairs Canada has helped bring back from the camps for ISIS families. (The government has not expended the same assistance to the four Canadian men imprisoned there.)

But when she landed in Montreal last October, Polman was not charged. Instead, she was arrested on a terrorism peace bond.

Instead of charges, peace bonds

Peace bonds have become Canada’s main response to the women returning from ISIS. Seven of the nine women Global Affairs Canada has helped get home from Syria were arrested on peace bonds and released on bail.

Typically lasting no more than a year, peace bonds put suspects under restrictions that are meant to temporarily protect public safety, without the burden of a full criminal trial.

But they do not result in a finding of guilt.

“It’s really about a security tool to prevent future terrorist activity, now that these women are back in Canada,” West said.

They are also controversial because they haven’t always worked.

In 2016, Aaron Driver, an ISIS supporter who was on a terrorism peace bond, built a bomb in his shed. He was leaving home in Strathroy, Ont., to conduct an attack when police cornered him. He detonated the bomb inside a taxi and was shot dead.

No peace bonds are currently in force against any of the women the government has brought back from Syria, although six cases are before the courts, which have banned publication of the police allegations against them.

The peace bond imposed on the seventh woman expired in May. The Alberta judge in her case ordered a publication ban that prevents reporters from identifying her. A request by Global News for documents filed in her case was also refused.

But in an affidavit, she wrote that she was born in Somalia and grew up in Toronto. She left Canada for Turkey in June 2014 and crossed into Syria, although she did not explain why.

“Shortly thereafter, I realized that I had been manipulated into going to that country,” she wrote.

This photo, released by the administration that controls the Kurdish-majority northeast region of Syria, shows a visit by a Canadian delegation, left, before the handover of two female Canadian detainees in July 2023. AANES

Police are now trying to deal with Dughmosh with a peace bond.

Days before her prison sentence was to end, the RCMP went to court on July 19 and applied for a terrorism peace bond requiring her to wear an ankle monitor and stay away from ISIS literature once she was released from the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont.

Are more charges coming?

Charges may still be coming against some of the women who returned from Syria.

The RCMP is continuing to investigate, and an international effort to share evidence collected in Syria and Iraq is underway.

Although the women might believe they’ve already been punished because they were held in Syrian detention camps before returning to Canada, that should not shield them from prosecution at home, West said.

“Obviously, that was an extremely harsh detention that they faced, but it’s not attached to a finding of culpability by the Canadian justice system,” said West, who visited the Syrian camps in 2019.


“Having been found guilty of a crime is different. So you could see charges.”

Until then, the Canadian women who lived under ISIS can be found in neighbourhoods in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

The wife of a British ISIS fighter resides outside Toronto, in a brick bungalow next to a church. Stuffed animals were displayed in the bay window. A courier package addressed to her brother lay on the front step.

The person who answered the door said the woman was not home as she had taken her kids to summer school.