Does Canada have a ‘moral responsibility’ to repatriate IS terrorists?

At the risk of adding yet one more blog post to the burning question of whether or not Canada – and by extension other countries – has a ‘moral obligation‘ to repatriate its citizens who deliberately, consciously and with full agency left to join terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) in Syria and/or Iraq, who didn’t do us a favour and get killed, who are now in custody (either by the Syrians, the Iraqis or the Kurds – the latter not a state entity), and who now are crying to be brought home or for whom we are feeling pressure (especially by the Kurdish SDF – Syrian Democratic Forces) to take back, here I go.

For the record, I have stated on numerous occasions in print and in interviews that I do not believe we have a legal obligation to do so, at least that is the way I read the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (but I am NOT a legal beagle). I have also tried to point out the logistic and threat-related implications of bringing these people back for our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies – CSIS and the RCMP – both of whom I imagine would rather not have to add yet more investigations onto their workload.

In other nations this issue is all over the map:

So what is the Canadian government’s position? To date it has been not to take extraordinary steps to facilitate the return of Canadians who joined terrorist groups. At this point I’d like to bring in a piece just published by my friend Michael Petrou on the CBC Web site. He argues that it would be ‘immoral’ to leave Canadians in Syria. Here is a summary of his position:

  • The government’s intransigence so far “violates the spirit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election campaign mantra that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” If that were true, IS members should expect Ottawa to expend the same efforts on them as it does on other Canadians who find themselves in sticky situations abroad.”
  • “What’s immoral about leaving Canadian ISIS members in Syria is that it makes our citizens a problem for the Syrian Democratic Forces to sort out .”
  • “What exactly do we expect the SDF to do with our citizens they now house and feed? Detain them indefinitely? Release them to potentially menace others in Syria, or perhaps in Europe, should they manage to cross into Turkey and travel on from there? Hand them over to Assad’s security forces, with its history of torture and industrial-scale murder? How are any of those options moral or pragmatic? “
  • “Whether we like it or not, Canadian ISIS members are our responsibility. We need to bring them home to deal with them as best we can.”

These points all strike me as valid. I am not a moral authority on anything so I must concede this space to those who are. And yet, there are a few ‘moral’ aspects of this that bother me:

  • is it ‘moral’ to bring these terrorists back when we know that chances of successful prosecution are low, implying that these criminals will get away with their heinous deeds and be free to do whatever they want?
  • is it ‘moral’ to say that those who suffered directly at the hands of these terrorists – i.e. the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Kurds and especially the Yazidis – should not be allowed to try them first in their courts? Is our ‘morality’ more important than theirs?
  • is it ‘moral’ to put those cases not strong enough to go to court through ‘reconciliation/reintegration/deradicalisation’ programs even though we have no idea if these approaches work and no idea whether the terrorists will ever truly reject the poisonous ideology they embraced?
  • is it ‘moral’ to expose Canadians to terrorist threats from returnees?

I have no answers to any of these. Please feel free to weigh in. Still, my position has not changed: we should not repatriate these terrorists if there is no legal obligation (but we must take them back if they find their way here).

In the end I do not think that moral arguments are going to win out anyway. No government benefits from going to bat for these terrorists, especially a Liberal government enmeshed in the SNC Lavalin fiasco and with an election coming up. Politics trumps morals – don’t they always?

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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