The ISIS Fighter Problem: What should the policy be?

Given their choice to pledge allegiance to a barbarous Islamist instead of their country, I’ve believed we should revoke their citizenships.

Shane Miller Montreal QC

As I said in a piece a few months ago, it is quite the quandary in which we have found ourselves when it comes to dealing with jihadist returnees.

What shall we do with them? I have taken what would be considered a hardline stance.

Given their choice to pledge allegiance to a barbarous Islamist instead of their country, I’ve believed we should revoke their citizenships. Simply put, I have sought a return to the policy of the Harper government.

It’s a simple palliative for our headaches since it’s a good way to communicate to these brutes that they have unforgivably violated their civic duties, and they’re on their own to face whatever consequences may come for their treasonous ways. But there are many different arguments with which we should contend in this debate.

The handling of this problem has been described as weak, and we haven’t had much of a perceptible plan. We have about 60 suspected terrorists here that have returned, and around 190 still abroad. Still, we sit precariously trying to determine what is to become of them.

Repatriation, prosecution, and reintegration may all be strong objectives, but answers regarding their viability are not clear. Prosecution is so agreed upon by everyone with a conscious that saying you’re for it is tautological, but it has proven to be complicated. Repatriation to prosecute also requires a vigorous effort that may prove fatuous since we may not gain much from it besides more security threats. Also, reintegration brings up a whole bevy of questions regarding resources, morality, justice, and security. Reintegration and disengagement has been a policy pursuit and clearly hasn’t instilled any confidence that the problem can be quelled.

Our Western allies—many of them faced with this malady to a much more distressing degree—have approached the issue in very firm ways. My ideas are aligned with those in the United Kingdom, who have opted to strip their dual nationals of citizenship.

The UK and France have also resolved to extirpate this pest by neutralizing their jihadists in the Middle East. Our government has rebuked this, with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale stating that the country will not participate in death squads.

The French have also warned their returnees that they will be jailed. “They can come to France, but they will be put in prison and judged,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said earlier this year. France has even recently handed over fighters to face sentencing in Iraqi courts, with several Frenchmen receiving the death penalty. In Canada, we have largely failed to bring any sort of justice, which justifies the alarum being sounded over the prospect of more returnees.

The Kurdish leadership in Syria that has kept these fighters has put pressure on Western governments to repatriate them. The reason being the burden of taking care of their families and the threat they may pose in the Middle East if they’re kept there and able to escape. Not to mention that Western governments are better equipped to put them on trial.

As it was recently reported, Turkish officials are ostensibly willing to work with the RCMP to help return ISIS fighters held by the Kurds back to Canada for prosecution by allowing them to transit through Turkey. This is an encouraging development for those who have been excogitating ways to repatriate these jihadists, especially given the hostility between the Kurds and the Turkish government. To be specific, the Turkshave designated Kurdish organizations as terrorist groups and launched offensives against Syrian Kurds. Nevertheless, Turkish officials are reportedto have said that if the RCMP or the Canadian Armed Forces brought these fighters to the border, they’d be allowed through.

On these sorts of matters, Minister Goodale has stated that repatriating these people isn’t a priority (he’s right, there) and consular officials should not be put at risk in a “dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world in which we have no diplomatic presence.” Safety concerns “currently prevent Canadian officials from travelling to northeastern Syria,” Goodale’s Press Secretary Scott Bardsley said in an emailed comment.

I contacted the Canadian embassy in Ankara seeking insight on this, specifically regarding the ensuing diplomacy between the parties involved. As of this writing, no response has been received. Guillaume Berube, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, said in an emailed statement that “Canadian diplomats have established a communications channel with local Kurdish authorities in order to verify the whereabouts of some Canadian citizens.” He also stated that any “Reports of an agreement concerning the repatriation of Canadian citizens from Syria are false.” A request for further clarification hasn’t received an answer.

Calls for restless efforts towards repatriation raise questions if it’d all be worth it. There is no confirmation that these returnees will be successfully prosecuted upon their return. The prospect of these returnees being able to live among us as if they never indulged the idea of ‘holy war’ causes much disquiet; for a good reason, too.  “Should the appropriate evidentiary threshold be met, the RCMP could proceed with terrorism charges or seek a peace bond to place conditions on the individual upon their return,” RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said via email.

The conundrum here is our ability to gather evidence that would be convincing enough to achieve anything worthwhile.  Evidence such as Twitter posts, pictures, affiliations, or testimony from a victimized refugee could be derisory to a lawyer. Former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski told me that any of these returnees could deny everything, accuse people of lying about them, and then have a lawyer make the case in the absence of any substantial evidence to the contrary to get them off. These complexities are why people, including myself, think we should settle on charging these people with treason and keeping them in jail.

Many arguments for repatriation urge the need to have these people fairly tried and prosecuted under our laws. Governments have decried the potential outcome of citizens receiving the death penalty in Iraq, where in 2018, more than 600 foreigners had been sentenced for links to Islamic State.

Naturally, countries that don’t believe in capital punishment want to prevent this by returning their citizens home. However, this is entirely based on what is subjectively seen as an obligation. Though we may have to let them in at the border if they arrive, “we have no obligation to go and get them,” Gurski explains. Moreover, he says, as much as people may not like it, they have every right as sovereign countries to prosecute people who committed crimes there the way they see fit. (I beseech the reader to look at this report on the genocide of the Yazidis that documents the impact of the kind of behaviour our fellow countrymen might have engaged in or abetted.)

The sensible case for repatriation is made by Jessica Davis, who opines that we should prioritize repatriation of these individuals to avert the risk of them being released and regrouping with Islamic groups who would find great value in their acquired skillset. She writes: “Once free, these individuals could engage in a wide variety of terrorist activity such as financing, recruitment, radicalization, and of course terrorist attacks. Individuals with any experience in the Islamic State would likely be considered an asset by a terrorist cell — not only for their propaganda value, but for the very real skills they could bring to bear on an attack.”

Essentially, she argues it’d be best to take Canadian jihadists back home so we can better monitor and manage any threat. This is worth ruminating upon as recent events enjoin us to come to terms with the reality that Islamic Statemay have lost its caliphate, but hasn’t lost its fervour or ability to mobilize.

According to the UN, there exist supply lines in areas like Eastern Europe that can facilitate arms shipments to the Middle East or North Africa. Furthermore, foreign fighters have been “central to the development of a new type of terrorist methodology,” as was observed in a 2018 UN reporton returning terrorists. Moreover, foreign fighters can act as “virtual planners,” who direct attacks from afar and “use secure communications to remotely guide attackers.” They also play a crucial role in target selection, timing, and execution of attacks. A persistent IS hell-bent on being triumphant again might lend credence to the contention that we should repatriate our fighters, lest they reunite with their jihadi brothers to wreak havoc elsewhere.

However, there are some practicalities that might make this too strenuous a task. In addition to thelabourthat goes into monitoring each individual, it’s very costly. One figure showcasing the resources required for such an enterprise is from Australia, where in 2014, security services estimated that it would cost the equivalent of $7.4 million American dollars a year to monitor only one returnee. Along with the cost comes a set of other pertinent challenges we need to consider.

Since it surely can’t be forever, how long should we monitor these people? If it seems like they no longer pose a threat for a time, can we ever be confident enough to stop monitoring them? What if we do and they proceed to do right by their brethren and act on their aspirations to be the next Michael Zehaf-Bibeau? As Gurski points out, these returnees could give signals that everything might be fine. They could lay low for a while then act and continue to radicalize others, even after going through deradicalization. So is having them back worth all the risk and cost? Personally, I think not.

The allocation of resources and taxing exertions all of this requires should be directed toward the children. Mentally and physically dilapidated, they will need extensive services and psychological treatment. Those who were old enough to commence the process of becoming indoctrinated agents of the caliphate will also have to undergo some sort of deradicalization program, whatever that might entail. Regarding the government’s policy for this, Scott Bardsley stated that the government would “examine carefully what can reasonably be done to protect those who are innocent.” “Immediate answers aren’t apparent,” he said.

The ideal policy, if we can’t revoke citizenship, is not actively seeking repatriation, but figuring out a way to promptly sentence and jail these miscreants if they must return. Of course, the best option is to let them rot overseas where they can find solace in the thought that the noose or firing squad will deliver them to Allah. Furthermore, if resources for reintegration must be apportioned, they should be devoted to the children who were tyrannized by their sinister parents and had no say in joining the cause of apocalyptic jihad.

When it comes to radicalization and ideology, it should go without saying that understanding Islamism and jihad is imperative. Political correctness poses a robust obstacle to this and has stymied the ability of Western governments, especially our own, to forcefully confront Islamism. What makes the government’s policy provoke execration is the perception that it emphasizes protecting political narratives instead of engaging with the details, no matter how troublesome they might be. Members appear convinced that modifying language will suddenly alchemize Islamic extremism into a more solvable problem. Specimens of this are the ignominious edits to the Public Safety reportthat omit any mention of Islamic fundamentalism, and how members refer to Islamic State by its Arabic alternative, Daesh.

The latter is due to a change that was made a few years ago. Goodale justified it in the 2016 report by saying Islamic State is “neither Islamic nor a state.” There are obvious issues here. Firstly, IS may not be a state, but it’s most certainly Islamic. One doesn’t have to become a doyen of the Quran and hadith to know that, either.

They could read something like Graeme Wood’s superb Atlantic essay in which he speaks to several IS supporters who outline how they’re motivated by coherent convictions that are connected to a plausible interpretation of Islam. Or they could acquaint themselves with the biography of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is the leader of IS and an Islamic scholar by training.

The hubristic tendency of Western politicians to insist that they are in a better position to claim whether something is or isn’t Islamic is a remarkable act of folly. It also doesn’t bode well for those trying to get to the root of the problem. Secondly, using an Arabic term instead of its English translation to risibly avoid saying one word—Islamic—doesn’t refine our understanding. If anything, it deceives the average Canadian who may be broadly familiar with Islamic State but doesn’t know much about it. Labouring to veil the religious component doesn’t make it clearer why our fellow citizens joined these death cults, and what should be done about it. It’s merely vapid posturing.

As it’s an election year, this issue requires our politicians to resist the temptation of pursuing whatever is politically expedient—it needs to be solved, and doing so might require facing the uncomfortable realities that have long been avoided. So they best figure it out, lest insufficient action leads to a concatenation of events that’ll give some of us reason to say: “I told you so.”


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