No, we should not rush to repatriate Canadian IS fighters and here is why

Have you ever been to Singapore?  I have, several times.  Nice city, clean, ordered, not really a lot to do there though. Capable intelligence services from my perspective.

What has always struck me on arrival at Changi Airport is the location of very, very big signs in English that tell you in bold letters what the Singaporeans think about drug dealing.  Right after you get off the plane you are hit over the head with messaging that says: “Death for drug dealers under Singaporean law”.  Death. Not, “we will look into your case and get back to you…”   Death.  Execution.  Pretty straight forward I’d say.

As a country that abandoned the death penalty a long time ago some in Canada may view the Singaporean warning as barbaric (for the record I am not in favour of putting people to death for their crimes for complicated reasons).  They think we should protest this practice and do everything in our power to extract Canadians who may be executed under Singaporean law.  Not that this would work: several Australians have been put to death by Singapore for drug dealing.

Others would argue “when in Rome..”, i.e. if you don’t want to do the time in a foreign country then don’t do the crime in that country.  There is some merit to that.  Why should we see ourselves as in a position to dictate to another sovereign nation what its laws should and should not be?  Who are we to tell others what to do?

This conundrum is all the talk these days when it comes to the status of Canadians who left our fair land to join Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist groups in the Levant or elsewhere.  Some died in battle and are no longer our concern.  Others were captured and executed under Iraqi law (I am not aware of any Canadians who fit that category but I am sure there were some foreign fighters killed by the Iraqis after short trials).  Then there are those in captivity who have ‘recanted’ and want to come home.  The question is: what do we do about this third cohort?  The Trudeau government has decided not to take special measures to repatriate them (in part because it does not want to expose consular officials to danger in a dangerous part of the world).

And they are 100% correct in this.

Canadians who thought that leaving to fight with IS was a good idea are one (or several) of:

a) stupid

b) dangerous terrorists and stupid

c) people we do not want back here in any circumstance – and stupid.

They departed of their own free will and deliberately and wantonly joined a terrorist group that is one of the most heinous in history (and that IS saying a lot!).  They had no problems killing and raping, or standing by while others killed and raped, and proudly boasted of their exploits on social media. They deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, whether that law is Iraqi, Syrian or Canadian. As their crimes took place in Syria or Iraq my suggestion is to let the Syrians or the Iraqis deal with these terrorists.

My friend and renowned Canadian terrorism scholar Amar Amarasingam thinks we should repatriate these guys and their families and charge them under Canadian law.  I respectfully disagree with him.  There are no guarantees that these men have truly abandoned the ideology that led them to join in the first place and hence they must be considered a ‘clear and present danger’ to Canada.  If we were to bring them back neither are there guarantees that we have enough evidence to try them, let alone convict them, and freed IS terrorists could inspire and/or radicalise others.

No one deserves a’do-over’ when it comes to terrorism.  Regardless of whether you have seen the light or not, the burden of proof that a threat has been neutralised lies with the terrorist, not the state.  They elected to be part of IS: there is a price to pay for that.  Yes, it is a high one, but that is the correct way to deal with this.

Some would argue that after the Omar Khadr and Joshua Boyle PR disasters the Trudeau government is afraid of criticism that by repatriating these men they will create a ‘trifecta of blunders’ that will cost them in the 2019 federal election. Some also say that JT is soft on terrorists.  Maybe.  Regardless, what they are doing with Canadian jihadis held by the Kurds in Syria (that the Kurds are not a state does complicate matters) is the right thing. Kudos to the Liberal government.

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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