Why – yet again – Canada should not rush to repatriate foreign fighters

Is it just me or is this issue never going to go away? I am referring of course to what to do with those Canadians – and by extension Westerners and others – who made the conscious, deliberate, enthusiastic, but stupid, decision to leave our (their) country to join terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS) and analogous bands in Syria and Iraq. The crux of the problem is that those who did not get themselves killed are being held by a variety of authorities – Syrian, Iraqi or Kurdish – and the latter in particular have asked the home nations to take their citizens back. The US has now weighed in and made the same request (um, since when does nation A tell nation B what it should do?) but the Canadian government is pushing back (and rightly so in my view).

I feel I have made all these arguments before and on several occasions, and yet I feel the need to outline them again. So, here we go, once more into the breach.

Why we should NOT rush to bring jihadis back:

  1. Bad decisions sometimes have bad consequences. Those who thought that this was a good idea are now realising (NOW realising?) that it was not. Do we hurry to repatriate pedophiles who go to Thailand to abuse little kids? Enough said.
  2. If you commit an offence in a foreign jurisdiction, doesn’t that jurisdiction have the right to try you? We may be aghast at the ‘justice’ of Iraq or Syria (quick trials followed by execution) but who are we to demand different? If Canadians or others are tried and convicted maybe then we can talk extradition and have them fulfill their sentences here. That way we don’t have to build cases (see next point).
  3. Many have said “Bring them home and we’ll have CSIS/the RCMP watch them and build cases to charge them”. Has anyone asked CSIS or the RCMP what they think? What kind of impact would repatriation have on ongoing operations and resource allocation? Would the need to ‘watch’ returnees mean having to stop other, perhaps higher priority, investigations? And, as for gathering evidence to lay charges, does the general public have any idea how hard this really is? Intelligence is not evidence and it is really difficult to gather, and hence use, information on what these idiots actually did overseas.
  4. What message does this send? That it is ok to join a terrorist group because Canada is going to save your ass in the end? The Liberals have to tread carefully here. Canadians are overwhelmingly already livid at the $10.5 million payout to Omar Khadr for what the Americans (NOT us) did to him. With an election coming up the perception that the Trudeau government is kowtowing to terrorists will not play well.
  5. What of the threat from returnees? It is probably true that the vast majority are not going to plan acts of terrorism here, but one is too many. Furthermore, there is the very real probability that some (many?) will act as inspiration for others, act as ‘radicalisers’ as it will. I remember once when I was at CSIS a source telling me that returnees were akin to flowers and their followers were like bees, flying around, receiving advice and encouraged to follow in the footsteps of the returned fighters. This is not theoretical: it is happening.

Here are the reasons in favour of repatriation:

  1. (insert sounds of crickets here)

I do acknowledge that the kids who were born under the ‘paradise’ of IS should be brought home – immediately. Once here they should be placed in child custody and put up for adoption. No person who took kids to the ‘Caliphate’ or had kids there is a responsible father or mother. The state must put the interests of these children above any other consideration. As for the older kids, they need to be counselled to remove the ideology to which they were exposed (as skeptical as I am vis-a-vis ‘deradicalisation).

I fear that the government will cave out of fear of future lawsuits (because we stupidly have set precedents as outlined above). So, yes get ready to embrace the returnees. It is categorically the wrong decision but it will most likely happen.

One last point. This may be a stretch but does the repatriation of foreign fighters not set a different kind of precedent? Are there wannabe jihadis in Toronto, say, who will look at this and think “Hey, I can go and become a terrorist and get glory and in the worst case scenario my government will rescue me! How cool is that? Sign me up!” Is this that fanciful? I think not.

In a word: no. Canada should not make herculean efforts to bring foreign fighter jihadis home.

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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