Should we charge returning foreign fighters with terrorism?

The RCMP announced yesterday that they have arrested Pamir Hakimzadah and charged him with leaving Canada to join Islamic State, meaning that he is charged with terrorism.

This is a big deal.  It represents, to my knowledge, the first returning foreign fighter to be charged under the provisions of section 83.01 of the Canadian Criminal Code – the part that deals with terrorism.  Others have been charged before they attempted to leave the country, some (such as Farah Shirdon of Calgary) have been charged in absentia, and still others have been charged with passport fraud, but no one who made it back here has been subject to terrorism allegations.

There is a lot of good in this move and a lot that is still challenging.  First the good.  It has long been an offence under the Criminal Code to join a terrorist group abroad such as IS or Al Qaeda and this indeed should be a crime.  If this case goes to trial very useful legal precedent will be established, which can be used in future cases.

Secondly, it appears that Turkish authorities may have helped detain Mr. Hakimzadah and send him back to Canada.  If so this is a very good development.  There are many things about Turkey under President Erdogan – the detention of journalists, the war on Turkey’s Kurds, etc. – that are worrisome but it is important that Canadian agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP continue to have mutually beneficial exchanges with their counterparts abroad.  We cannot do this alone, i.e. collect intelligence and run investigations around the globe, and we rely on the assistance of our partners.  Kudos to the Turks for pitching in on this occasion.

There are in addition a few challenges and a few questions outstanding.  As a judicial first it will be interesting to see what evidence has been amassed and how solid it is.  It goes without saying that collecting information in a war zone is tough and that in a post O’Connor/Iacobucci Commission world intelligence sharing with foreign bodies is under an intense spotlight.  The trial should prove interesting.

As far as questions go there are several.  Who is Pamir Hakimzadah?  What is his story?  How did he become radicalised and where?  Was he part of a larger group of wannabe foreign fighters (like the Montreal and Calgary clusters)?  Was he known to CSIS or the RCMP before he left in 2014 for Syria?  If not, how did our spies learn about him?  What do we know about his acts over there?  Did he participate in war crimes or crimes against humanity?  All very good questions that I hope we eventually get some answers on.

In the meantime we should congratulate the RCMP on their work.  Toronto Police Services also played a role and this demonstrates once again the benefits of working together.

Thanks to all for keeping us safe!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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