Canadian officials have so far shown little interest in repatriating any of the Canadian nationals still imprisoned among the former Islamic State fighters in Kurdish-run prisons in Syria, illustrating the wider problem confronting their U.S.-backed captors.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which spearheaded the struggle to drive IS from its self-declared caliphate in 2019, is still holding more than 10,000 members of the extremist group in its desert prisons, including an estimated 2,000 foreign nationals.
An estimated 50,000 additional wives, children and other IS sympathizers are being held in sprawling and squalid camps. But repeated SDF appeals for the foreign fighters to be repatriated and placed on trial in their home countries have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Canada, which contributed troops to the anti-IS effort, has so far brought home no IS fighters and only a handful of women and children. Even that has been controversial, due in part to fears of importing terrorism onto Canadian soil.
Phil Gurski, a former Canadian intelligence officer who follows the issue, is among those who worry about what will happen if the extremists return.
“I’m sure some people abandon the idea [of extremism] eventually,” Gurski said in an interview. “Doesn’t mean they have.”
As evidence, he pointed to a 2017 event in which a female IS supporter, who had just returned home to Canada after trying unsuccessfully to reach the so-called caliphate, walked into a Toronto-area business and attacked people at random with a knife and a golf club. No one was injured.
Gurski says in cases like hers, the motive is clear: “If I can’t do it there, I’ll just do it here.”
Canadian authorities declined to provide VOA with a precise count of how many Canadians joined IS or where they are now, but Gurski estimated that about 200 citizens went abroad to join terrorist groups in recent years and that about 60 of them joined IS in Syria and Iraq.
He said about 30 still appear to be outside the country, several of them in the Syrian prisons.
Canada repatriated four women and 10 children from the Kurdish-run al-Roj camp in Syria in early April, winning an expression of public appreciation from the U.S. Department of State.
“We are also grateful to our local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, for their leadership in addressing this complicated situation,” the statement said. “The United States supported Canada’s repatriation today and stands ready to assist other nations in their repatriation efforts.”
The United States announced in December 2020 that it had brought home all 27 U.S. citizens known to have traveled to Syria and Iraq and has repatriated another 12 since then. The total includes 15 adults, of whom at least 11 have been charged with crimes, and and 24 children.
Global Affairs Canada, a government agency, announced the repatriation of the 14 Canadians in an April 6 statement, saying, “The safety and security of Canadians, both at home and abroad, is our utmost priority. Amidst reports of deteriorating conditions in the camps in northeastern Syria, we have been particularly concerned about the health and wellbeing of Canadian children.”
But Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer for the women and children, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the government acted only after three years of effort on his part and the filing of an application in federal court. He told the CBC that another two women and three children had been scheduled to be come home at the same time but failed to show up for the flight.
Mubin Shaikh, a former undercover officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told VOA in an email exchange that he understands four Canadian men are currently imprisoned in Syria and that six women and an unknown number of children are still in the SDF camps.
“There are two kinds of ‘Returnees’ as far security services are concerned,” wrote Shaikh, who currently works as a counter-extremism specialist with the advocacy group Parents4Peace conducting direct interventions with extremist individuals.
“Those who went and came back and those captured by Kurdish forces,” he told VOA. “As for the first: if they are known, they are monitored and in I believe two cases, moved on to be charged by [the Royal Canadian Mounted Police].
“As for the second group who remain in detention camps: There has been some legal wrangling in which a few women and children were repatriated but only two were charged with any terrorism offence,” he added. “The others are receiving Peace Bonds, which is a form of enhanced probation.”
A Canadian civil society delegation that visited the camps last month called for the government to provide consular services to all the Canadians still in the camps and to work with their Kurdish captors to bring home all who wish to leave.
“Nothing in my working life could have prepared me for the experiences of this past week,” said federal Senator Kim Pate, a member of the delegation.
“Like many Canadians, I have long prided myself on being a citizen of a country that upholds human rights and promotes the rule of law, nationally and internationally. We are doing neither in Northeast Syria,” Pate continued in a prepared statement.
“Canada needs to be at the forefront of determined efforts to provide resources and assist in building the institutions for delivering justice and upholding human rights in Northeast Syria,” he said. “Our approach to date has undermined, not advanced those goals.”
Global Affairs Canada provided VOA with a statement saying Canadian consular officials “remain actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities, international organizations operating in the region, as well as the civil society humanitarian delegation led by Senator Pate for information on and assistance to Canadian citizens in custody. …
“Due to privacy and operational security considerations, we cannot comment on specific cases or potential future actions.”
Shaikh said that most of those who went to join IS “are no longer as radicalized.”
“Everything has collapsed and they are desperate to get back to Canada,” he said. “There are a few who remain of concern and they need to be charged and put in prison for a proper sentence. The ones that are keen to work with rehabilitation programs, we should facilitate that.”
Gurski, however, remains skeptical that any of the remaining extremists have given up the IS ideology — or if that’s even possible to determine.
“The problem is some people may become [ideologically] disengaged, but measuring their actual commitment is impossible,” he said. “Determining a level of radicalization” is even more difficult.
There is also uncertainty about how many Canadian IS members or supporters may have eluded capture in Syria and Iraq and slipped back into Canada unnoticed. Shaikh said "there may well be” such people “but the number is very low. Five or so."
Asked how many returnees are being monitored, RCMP Cpl. Kim Chamberland said: "For privacy and operational reasons, generally the RCMP does not confirm or deny who, or who may not be, subject of an investigation."
VOA's National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.