Preparations for a return of the alleged Canadian jihadists detained in Syria

Translated from the Original Article Posted on November 04, 2019 at 5:00 am by, GABRIELLE DUCHAINE

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces stands guard in a prison where men suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State group are imprisoned in the city of Hasakeh in northeastern Syria.

Will Canada bring back to the country its nationals suspected of having swelled the ranks of the ISIS armed group in Syria? Several sources say that a secret repatriation plan nearly ended last year, which Ottawa denies. One thing is certain, we asked everyone here to prepare for their return.

Canada has reportedly negotiated in the spring of 2018 the repatriation of 11 suspected Canadian jihadists and their 10 children, according to a British MP returned from a mission in Syria. In an affidavit obtained by La Presse , the authenticity of which was confirmed, he writes that Kurdish forces believed Canadians “a week away from home” before discussions broke down without further explanation.


Hundreds of women and children of suspected jihadists live in Roj detention camp in Syrian Kurdistan.

According to Labor MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Canada and representatives of the Syrian Democratic Democratic Federation had documented in official documents how the evacuation of Canadian citizens would be organized. “I learned from Kurdish officials that there had been intensive discussions with Canadians. Together, they had taken various steps to repatriate all Canadians, which I understand included 21, including 10 children, “the affidavit says.

False, says Ottawa

In Ottawa, Global Affairs Canada categorically denies this information. “Reports of an agreement to repatriate Canadian citizens from Syria are false,” said spokeswoman Barbara Harvey.

The official position is: “Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance throughout Syria is extremely limited. The government deals with these cases and provides assistance wherever possible. “

How to explain such a gap between the versions? According to a government source, the story of the failed repatriation is in fact a “test balloon” launched by the Kurds.

They have an interest in making these assertions to put pressure on foreign governments.

A government source

“They started doing this about a year ago, and there it seems they have stopped. The federal government has no interest in considering such an option. I can not imagine that he will do it in the future. “

A failed return?

La Presse spoke with several other people who are convinced that Canadians held in Syria nearly returned home last year.

This is the case of British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who works on the issue of the return of jihadists to their countries of origin. “At the time, the identity of 21 Canadians was known. A memorandum of understanding was reached in the city of Sulaymaniyah [Iraq] between the Syrians of the north-east and Canada to repatriate all Canadians, “the lawyer wrote in an email to La Presse .

He explained that these 21 people, women, men and several children, then filled out all the documents necessary for issuing emergency travel documents. “The documents to fill out were provided to them and they filled them out. And they took the pictures, “says M e Stafford Smith, who says he himself spoke to Roj camp Kurdish soldiers who helped the Canadian women. “The Canadian government then really filibustered and denied having received such requests, which forced us to go through the whole process again. This is what many women have done. “

FAVE Canada Director Alexandra Bain, who helps families of young parties to Syria, tells a similar story. In the spring of 2018, she said, Global Affairs Canada reportedly asked members of four families to help gather the information needed to issue travel documents, “so that all Canadians in the camp can be brought back to Canada together. “.


Alexandra Bain, FAVE Canada Director, Alexandra Bain, helping families of young parties to Syria

[In the camps], the women thought they would fly from one moment to the next. They believed so much that they were going away that they got rid of all their possessions.

Alexandra Bain, Director of FAVE Canada

In Canada, a confidential source directly involved in the investigation of young parties swelling the ranks of the Islamic State armed group also tells La Presse that “something happened” in the spring of 2018. “They had to bring people back by plane, but it did not happen, “says the source, who is not allowed to speak publicly. Since then, things have stalled.

Jack Letts, a British-Canadian who was taken out of the United Kingdom because she believes he is a jihadist, was part of the group, according to his family. “They told us in a letter that they were doing everything they could to get him out. We know that they met Kurdish officials and that things were progressing. And then, boom. They cut off all communications with us, “says his father John.

Ready for a return

Will come back? Will not come back? The question of the return of the emulators of the IS is a thorn in the foot for the government. According to an Ipsos poll on behalf of Global News, 71% of Canadians are opposed to the government “doing the right thing” to bring them back home.

This is a “very political” issue, in which the result of the last federal campaign could have an impact, says a confidential source who works with the police in the case of these young people and who fears to be sanctioned by speaking.

“There is disagreement among the different political parties, but I think there is a government position on the repatriation of Canadian nationals. “

I have the impression that [now that the election campaign has passed], such a position should prevail. So, yes, it is expected that there will be repatriation.

A confidential source

One thing is certain: Ottawa has asked field workers to prepare for the arrival of Canadian nationals from Syria.

In Montreal, a committee bringing together the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the director of youth protection and experts from the health network was set up. Who will be waiting at the airport? What will children do? “Everything has been planned, explains the child psychiatrist Cécile Rousseau, committee member. We are not in improvisation. “

Her team, she says, is ready to go to the airport “anytime”.

“They are coming from a war zone”

According to FAVE Canada figures, there are no more than 21, but 40 Canadians in camps or prisons controlled by Kurdish forces: about ten women, five men and about 25 children, 19 of whom are under the age of five.

If they manage to return, either on their own or with the help of the state, they will be expected by police officers, health professionals, DYP staff and interpreters. “They come from a war zone and camps where the physical and hygiene conditions are very poor. We know that we will have to mobilize actors in physical health, infectious diseases, nutrition and development. People are expected to be in poor physical condition, “says Dr.  Rousseau. She adds that most children are born there and sometimes do not speak English or French.

Here is how we intend to proceed.

For adults

“A risk assessment is done for each subject returning from a conflict zone,” says Sergeant Hakim Bellal of the RCMP. Each file is investigated and each file differs from another, depending on the risk it poses to national security. We will make sure that the person returning to Canada will not pose a risk to the community. “

And how do we do it?

First, let us recall that since 2013, Canadian law considers that leaving or attempting to leave Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group is a criminal offense. The laying of criminal charges is therefore possible against some.

According to a confidential source involved in the investigation, the police are also interested in young Canadians who allegedly mistreated their servants in their “caliphate” house established by the IS, particularly in Syrian territories, subjecting them to ill-treatment and abuse. physical and sexual abuse. They could be charged under the Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.

At a minimum, the authorities would consider signing the return of Commitments to keep the peace, says the same source.

“Zero risk does not exist, but everything has been put in place so that there is no surprise,” says Sergeant Bellal. These files are closely followed by the RCMP. “

For kids

Contrary to the policy of some European countries, like France, children will not be systematically separated from their parents, explains the child psychiatrist Cécile Rousseau.

Welcoming returnees, she says, was designed according to a priority, that of the best interests of the child.

“In the event that a parent is arrested, he should be separated from his children. Even in a situation like this, it is important for the parent to be reassured about the child’s fate and to explain to him that they will be safe. This is very important to reassure children who are coming from a state of war, where security was far from secure. “

In the scenario where the parent is not charged, “there will be an assessment to see how the children and parents are going and, ultimately, determine what is best for the child’s best interests. Since there is a bond of attachment, it is better not to separate them. If you have parents who have very poor physical or mental health or abuse, the same rules that apply to Canadian parents would apply under the Youth Protection Act. “

In short, the alleged jihadists will be treated like any other parent.

This approach will not be unanimous, as Dr.  Rousseau is aware of.

“Safer, more punitive approaches create a lot of harm, resentment and distress for parents and children. If children are treated with kindness and parents feel that their relationship is respected, we set the table for a relationship of respect essential to reintegration. It’s not about thinking the same thing as them. But that does not mean that the person is only that. You are not just someone who has done something wrong. You are also someone with children and we share a concern to protect them. “

– With the collaboration of Mélanie Marquis, La Presse

“A Canadian should be tried and imprisoned in Canada”

Put him in jail, but bring him back to Canada.

This is essentially the message of the father of the alleged British-Canadian jihadist Jack Letts, who is being held in a Syrian prison.


Converted to Islam as a teenager, Jack Letts took to Syria in 2014. Several media reports that he joined the Islamic State group. His father believes he was stuck in his territory.

Since the United Kingdom withdrew citizenship from his son last summer, the Franco-Ontarian based in England has been focusing on Canada.

Even though he believes his boy’s innocence, John Letts does not ask Ottawa to give him a blank check.

“Once they are in Canada,” he says of the returning students, “they should all be jailed immediately. Nobody has ever said that they should be free. “


“I believe [my son] should have access to a lawyer and he should have a trial,” said John Letts, father of the alleged British-Canadian jihadist Jack Letts, who is being held in a Syrian prison.

I would not want one of them to be free, including my son. But I think he should have access to a lawyer and he should have a trial.

John Letts

“A friend’s daughter died in an explosion on the London Underground. I know people who have suffered from terrorism. I hate IS. I hate all that is violent, and if my son had been involved in something like that, I would condemn him in the public square. But I believe a Canadian remains a Canadian and should be tried and imprisoned in Canada if he has done something wrong, he says. I will condemn him if he has done something wrong, but I want to see evidence. Not just what newspapers keep repeating. “

The British media nicknamed him “Jack the jihadist”. His story is nebulous. Converted to Islam as a teenager, the young man took the road to Syria in 2014. He got married and had a child. Several media reported that he joined the jihadist group. Kurdish forces hold him on this premise. His father believes he was stuck in the IS territory.

“The cornerstone of democracy is that people are considered innocent until proven guilty. Our lawyers found no evidence that Jack had been involved in IS, that he was a fighter. From the moment we say that his name is Jack the jihadist, it says he is guilty. His name is Jack Letts. “

“We are working on your case”

Jack’s mother, Sally Lane, sent La Presse the transcript of a conversation he had with a Canadian official in January 2018, before he lost his British citizenship.

The woman asks him what are his conditions of detention, if he is fed regularly, if he can exercise. Then she offers him help.

Here are some excerpts:

Official: “I am from the Government of Canada. Do you want help from us? “

Letts: “Yes. Get me out of here. “

Official: “If it were possible, would you like to come to Canada? In Great Britain ? “

Letts: “I want to come back to Canada. “

The young man asks several times if she will be able to organize his repatriation.

Official: “We are working on your case. Talking with you is a positive first step. […] We will continue to try to find a solution. “

Letts: “Do you intend to take me back to Canada? “

Official: “We intend to try to help you. […] Canada is an option. […] We do not have anyone in Syria and it is a complex environment, so I can not give you a definitive timetable, but we are working on your case. “

“Children should be saved immediately”

What are Canada’s responsibilities to its citizens? Should children be treated differently from adults? Are returners a risk to national security? La Presse spoke with Phil Gurski, a former analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.


Children play in a camp where relatives of Islamic State fighters are gathered in northern Syria.

Q. Does Canada have a legal or moral obligation to bring back suspected jihadists and their children?

A. These are two separate questions. According to [outgoing Minister of Public Safety] Ralf Goodale, Canada has no legal obligation to assist Canadians who have committed crimes outside Canada. Whether you are a jihadist in Iraq or a drug addict in Singapore, Canada has no obligation to send the police or army to save you. That’s the legal question.


Phil Gurski, former analyst for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service

There are some who argue that if there is no legal obligation, there is a moral obligation. And frankly, I wonder what that means. In the past, I said that since these people have become radicalized in Canada, they are our problem. These are not innocents who, once in Iraq, have become radicalized. The process of radicalization has occurred here in Canada. The problem is that the crimes were committed in Iraq or Syria. Do not the governments of these countries have the right to try them to punish them for crimes committed in their countries?

Q. Should we make a distinction between children and adults?

A. The children should be saved immediately. These children should be taken away from their parents, because in my opinion, a father or mother who travels to be part of the Islamic State group proves to me that he is not a parent. The Canadian government should save young children, take them away from their parents if they are alive, repatriate them to Canada and entrust them to other family members or entrust them to the state.

Q. Why would we decide to bring them back to the country?

A. Because a Canadian is a Canadian. Here is the famous quote from Trudeau four years ago [while he was Leader of the Opposition, Justin Trudeau made this statement to mean he opposed the withdrawal of their citizenship from terrorists]. The problem is that the vast majority of Canadians do not want to have anything to do with these people. So if the government decides to repatriate them all, men, women and children, it will not be popular with the vast majority of people. The reason the Liberals have not done anything so far is that they have nothing to gain.

Q. Do they pose a risk to national security?

A. Absolutely. Some of them ask one. There are some who will plan attacks or commit attacks. The other problem is that there are others who will return home without renouncing extremist or terrorist ideology. And they may radicalize other Canadians. Do we want someone who has spent time there to come back and recruit or radicalize people to follow the same path as them? Not everyone will return and commit an attack in the following week or month, but we can not predict it. You have to investigate everyone and determine the risk, and it takes time.

Q. Can we accuse them once here?

A. According to the Terrorism Act, it is a crime to leave Canada to join a terrorist group, but the problem is how to prove it? The evidence is in Syria. The evidence is in Iraq. The witnesses are there. The victims are there. It would be very difficult for a government to build a case that will be successfully tried in Canada. It is difficult to collect evidence in a war zone.

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