Jun 10, 2019

Former Guantanamo Bay inmates still a hot topic…in Canada

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on June 3, 2019

Canada had nothing to do with the US decision to use the anachronistic Guantanamo Bay military camp in Cuba as a highly controversial – if not internationally illegal – detention centre for suspected terrorists. That people alleged to have been linked to terrorist groups were shipped from Afghanistan and other places to the Caribbean enclave and placed in cages, often for years with no legal representation, still registers as a black mark on the US’ reputation as a world leader in freedom and respect for human rights. The use of Guantanamo as a prison has not served America’s ill-named ‘war on terrorism’ and has arguably made things worse.

We here in Canada have our own issues with Gitmo, as it is usually called, and those issues focus largely on the person of former inmate Omar Khadr. Enough has been said and written on this son of a terrorist, including by me, and it is not necessary for me to belabour this point. And yet Gitmo was in the news again lately in a piece that combined terrorism and immigration, two topics that are indeed hot ones.

According to Post Media, Ayub Mohammed, an ethnic Uyghur from China who was in the prison camp for six years before the US decided he was NOT a terrorist, met a Canadian woman online and married her. The two now have three children, all of whom are Canadian citizens, and Mr. Mohammed wants to move to Canada from Albania to to live with his new family in Montreal. The Federal Court of Canada has ordered a new hearing for Mr. Mohammed after immigration officials had denied his request for permanent resident status, having concluded he was a member of a terrorist organization, and thus inadmissible. Government lawyers argued in court that a negative decision on Mohammed’s immigration request was “inevitable.”

It is hard not to feel sorry for this man. As he puts it “I live with that everyday, that stain of having been a detainee at Guantanamo Bay…Coming out of Guantanamo, I went into another kind of prison. Everywhere I go, I don’t have the documentation, I don’t have the freedom to move around and once people hear about my background, they stay away…. After they hear about my past, they just disappear.” A sad tale for certain.

What then should be done for Mr. Mohammed? Normally, those who marry Canadian citizens have the right to apply to become Canadians themselves, a process that happens tens of thousands of times a year I bet. But is the Guantanamo ‘stain’, as Mr. Mohammed puts it, really what is going on? Is it not possible that there are indeed national security or public safety concerns in this case? Furthermore, in an election year in which immigration may be subject to debate, does the Trudeau government want to move on this issue before we go to the polls? Yes, the vast majority of Canadians support our current levels of immigration but would this case not be open to opposition accusations that the government is ‘soft’ on terrorism?

Despite the fact that the US eventually decided that Mr. Mohammed was not a terrorist, there are Uyghur Islamist extremists who have carried out attacks, especially in China which has used this reality to justify the incarceration (masked as ‘education and retraining’) for millions of Chinese Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. There is also a terrorist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – the organisation that Mr. Mohammed was once allegedly linked to – comprised largely of ethnic Uyghur Islamist extremists and many analysts have documented a sizable Uyghur contingent in terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, among others.

None of this is to suggest that Mr. Mohammed is a terrorist: after all the US cleared him. Still, it is necessary for the Canadian government to perform due diligence in all refugee cases to ensure that the ‘wrong’ people are not allowed to come and live among us. Part of that due diligence is the responsibility of CSIS which can use its intelligence holdings or even carry out an investigation to determine whether an applicant does pose a threat to national security or public safety. We must allow that process to continue and for CSIS to do its job.

I really hope that Mr. Mohammed can have a normal life one day, if for no other reason that anyone locked up in Guantanamo deserves such a life. At the same time it is critical that the national security agencies are allowed to weigh in on cases like this. We need to have the regular court decide on the fate of Mr. Mohammed, not the court of public opinion.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former senior strategic analyst with CSIS.