The stories of so-called ‘foreign fighters’ – outsiders who left their homelands to hook up with terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and others – are a dime a dozen. Literally. As estimates range up to 40,000 who joined IS alone over the past five years or so, one can be excused for asking in the wake of yet another ‘confession’ “No, not again – next!”
The problem of what to do with these men and women continues to haunt us however. Those that did not do us a favour and get killed by Syrian or Iraqi forces or in airstrikes (sound harsh? Not really. He that liveth by the sword…) are now being captured and held by local security agencies. Some of these agencies have asked us to take our nationals home.
So, should we?
I want to discuss this issue briefly in the context of ‘Abu Turaab Al Kanadi’ – Muhammad Ali of Mississauga who left Canada in April 2014 to join IS. While with the terrorist group he became a bit of a “a prominent social media propagandist”. Here is what else you should know about him (thanks to an interview and background info gathered by my friends Amar Amarasingam and Global News reporter Stewart Bell):
- Contrary to myths about why people radicalise to violence, Abu Turaab emigrated to Canada when he was seven, attended a Catholic school and Ryerson University and ‘played basketball’. Aside from the basketball stuff (normally it would be hockey), sounds pretty ‘Canadian’ to me.
- He was influenced – but not ‘recruited’ he maintains – by infamous Canadian convert jihadi Andre Poulin of Timmins, Ontario.
- He worked in northern Alberta for a bit to raise money to go to Syria. When his father found out and tried to talk him out of it, he replied “it seemed like the right thing to do at that time.” Bad choice in hindsight.
- He posted photos of IS executions and talked about playing soccer with severed heads. As IS was throwing homosexuals of rooftops, he said they should be killed. Following the October 2014 terror attacks in Quebec and Ontario he gloated and called for more.
- He met his wife at a house where women waited to be married off to IS terrorists (not quite The Dating Game).
- He joined a sniper and reconnaissance unit, did “mostly recon, some sniping and some training,” and acted as a spotter.
Quite the ‘story’.
Now that he has been captured he has “learned his lesson” and “just wants to go back home”. He is worried about his wife and two kids. He swears he does not want to do anything ‘bad’ in Canada. Mr. Amarasingam thinks he “seemed disillusioned and appeared to have undergone a change of heart” but acknowledges that the ‘remorse’ he demonstrated may have been ‘feigned’ (“Just based on a two-hour interview, it’s kind of difficult to know whether he’s lying, whether he’s kind of playing the regret card just to get back to Canada.” – good call Amar).
What then is the obligation or the right decision by our government?
This is far from an easy question. There are several important considerations:
- because he left Canada he committed a serious offence – he joined a terrorist group – but is there enough evidence to charge, prosecute and incarcerate him? What if the government case fails and he goes free?
- is he really sincere about his ‘recanting’? I have serious hesitation in accepting this. I have interviewed convicted terrorists and it is really hard to determine motivation behind so-called remorse. Can anyone really say with absolute certainty that he is an ‘ex-terrorist’? Can we read minds now? What if we are wrong?
- just as he was inspired in part by Andre Poulin he too could become a star radicaliser of others. Do we want to allow such a person back?
- Did he not commit crimes in Iraq? Should not the Iraqis have a shot (figurative not literal!) at him? Are Iraqis not entitled to make him pay for what he did?
In the end I caution against feeling sorry for Abu Turaab. His fate was entirely of his own making. No one forced him to join IS. Bad decisions lead to bad consequences in my experience and he made a particularly bad decision. He will have to pay for that, perhaps for the rest of his life. I am less condemnatory of his wife and kids although do we really know what she stands for (we can assume the kids are blameless and their welfare must be taken into consideration)?
Maybe, in time, if he is really sincere, he could be a voice for countering terrorist recruitment. Maybe he could help convince others not to follow in his footsteps. Maybe. Except that time is not now. A lot more has to be settled before he can assume any of these roles, if ever.
Abu Turaab just “wants to come home”. None of this would be an issue if he had not left in the first place.