'We're doing nothing': Canada could be a leader in handling its foreign fighters, but isn't, say experts

The government estimated that of some 180 Canadian foreign fighters, 60 had returned to Canada. None have returned at Canada's intervention

Accused Islamic State member Abdelkarim El B. arrives for the first day of his trial in Frankfurt, Germany, Aug. 22, 2016. "The U.S. and Germany have been more aggressive in bringing returnees to prosecute them in domestic courts," an expert says. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images/File

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OTTAWA — There are thousands more like Jack Letts, a British ISIL recruit and Canadian citizen who languishes in a Kurdish-controlled area of Syria, but few strategies for dealing with them.

Only a fraction of some 40,000-50,000 foreign fighters held by the Kurds and the governments of Syria and Iraq are Canadian. But amid broader questions about Western countries’ responsibilities to repatriate and prosecute the alleged ISIL members — and oftentimes their refusal to do so — some argue Canada is “doing nothing” and missing an opportunity for leadership.

“To me it doesn’t actually seem like something that’s super hard for us to do as a country. We only have 33 of them — 18 of them are kids, there’s only six men over there. So the number of prosecutions that would be involved in serious criminality would be minimal. And we’re doing nothing,” said Leah West, an international security expert and lecturer at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“I think we would have the ability to take a leadership role or at least to be at the table providing opportunities for solutions if we were to do the right thing. But we can’t.”

There are relatively few examples of citizens being repatriated in this way after the collapse of ISIL-held territory in Syria early this year. Four people have been convicted of terrorism-related offences after they returned to Canada of their own volition. The government estimated at the end of last year that of some 180 Canadian foreign fighters, 60 had returned to Canada. None have returned at Canada’s intervention.

The United States is so far doing the “best job” of hauling people back overseas to be tried, West said. The U.S. is not just putting them at the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison, as President Donald Trump suggested, but resettling some and prosecuting others.

“It’s clear that the U.S. and Germany have been more aggressive in bringing returnees to prosecute them in domestic courts,” said Kyle Matthews, executive director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

That goes for Europe in general, although most of those repatriated have been women and children. On Sunday, Germany announced it planned to repatriate 100 children linked to ISIL. In Central Asia, Kazakhstan has brought back around 500, mostly women and children, and has established a process to try to reintegrate them into society.

Russian women who have been sentenced to life in prison on grounds of joining the Islamic State stand in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court, April 29, 2018. Ammar Karim/AFP/Getty Images/File

One of the risks of leaving people in local detention facilities, aside from continued regional instability and the chance they will manage to escape, is their possible prosecution by Syrian or Iraqi officials — agents of the governments wronged by ISIL who don’t have much of a vested interest in their care, West said.

If Canadians are mistreated in the custody of such officials, the government leaves itself open to multi-million-dollar lawsuits, à la Omar Khadr, if it doesn’t repatriate them. It leaves open the possibility that some will die. Earlier this year, 11 French men whom France refused to repatriate were sentenced to hang in Iraq after punctuated trials.

The most “ambitious” plan to deal with the population of foreign fighters, said Matthews, is a Swedish proposal to set up an international tribunal. Eleven countries including France, the U.K. and Germany met in Stockholm this June to discuss it. Canada has not expressed a public opinion on the tribunal but it would be a “no-brainer” to at least be part of the discussions, Matthews said, even if it proves difficult to achieve.

Some countries have done everything possible to limit responsibility over their alleged terrorists. Britain and Australia have made a habit of revoking citizenships of alleged foreign fighters. Australia recently went a step further, passing a law that would prevent such people from re-entering the country for two years, and that would impose strict conditions on their return.

The previous Conservative government in Canada had brought in a citizenship revocation policy, but the Liberals overturned it after campaigning in 2015 on the idea that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

If we don’t hold these people to account or do justice for their victims, we’re sending a message that you can do this with impunity

Public safety minister Ralph Goodale’s office wouldn’t comment on Jack Letts, who grew up a dual citizen in the U.K. but now only has Canada to go back to. It is clear from the statement provided by press secretary Scott Bardsley, however, that there is no rush to bring him or anyone else back to face justice in a Canadian court.

“The Government is aware of some Canadian citizens currently detained in Syria. There is no legal obligation to facilitate their return. We will not expose our consular officials to undue risk in this dangerous part of the world,” the statement said.

It doesn’t make things any easier that the main group in charge of the Kurdish region of Syria, the PKK, is listed as a terrorist group in Canada. And even if they were brought back, under Canadian law it is difficult to prosecute people on terrorism charges. Security agencies are often prevented by law from sharing usable evidence with the courts. Experts have been suggesting reforms for decades to no avail.

On prosecuting terrorism writ large, the United Kingdom is a leader. It brought terrorism charges against 91 people in 2018 alone and convicted 81 of them. Since 2001, Canada has prosecuted 55 people, 30 of whom were convicted. “The U.K. kicks our butt when it comes to prosecuting terrorism,” West said. Still, only about a tenth of people who returned to Britain from Syria were successfully prosecuted on terrorism charges, the British security minister told Parliament in February.

No matter the method of their return, Canada should take a “harder line” on travelling ISIL supporters than it has, at least rhetorically, said Matthews. “I would say that this is a long game, and if we don’t hold these people to account or do justice for their victims, we’re sending a message that you can do this with impunity.”

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