Repatriating Canada's Terrorist Travelers: The Threat Management Considerations

24 May 2019

By Jessica Davis

The repatriation of Canada’s “foreign fighters” (more accurately called extremist or terrorist travelers, since not all engaged in combat) is one of the most contentious issues in Canada in terms of national security, and was once again in the news this past week. Many people in Canada would argue that these individuals should be left in Syria to face justice either there or in Iraq, and that they do not “deserve” to come home (comments section). Yet there are compelling arguments in favor of the repatriation of these travelers, including legal and humanitarian ones (some of which were outlined by Intrepid Blog founding editor Leah West on Power and Politics this week). This post will outline a separate (yet related) reason for repatriation: threat management.

Fundamentally, the threat management argument for repatriation centres around one key issue: the Kurdish authorities’ ability (and willingness) to continue to detain these individuals. The Syrian Kurds, however, are shouldering the burden of detaining, feeding and clothing these ISIS members, and have repeatedly said that they do not want this responsibility. They have also said that they lack the capacity to hold trials and incarcerate them over the long term. The Kurds are also facing their own issues, notably ongoing threats from Turkey to “root out” Kurdish terrorists, and a Syrian government that may seek to reassert control over their territory. In either case, these conflicts could seriously test the Kurds’ ability (and willingness) to maintain control over the detention centres.

There is a very real risk that these terrorist travelers (and in some cases, hardened fighters) could escape Kurdish custody. If they succeed, they could reconnect with Islamic State cells in the region, or pay smugglers to help them escape into Europe. Once free, these individuals could engage in a wide variety of terrorist activity such as financing, recruitment, radicalization, and of course terrorist attacks. Individuals with any experience in the Islamic State would likely be considered an asset by a terrorist cell -- not only for their propaganda value, but for the very real skills they could bring to bear on an attack.

To ensure that a Canadian terrorist traveler does not engage in further terrorist activity, it is critical that Canada repatriate these individuals, the sooner the better. But what to do about them when they are home?

Canada’s terrorist travelers are a mixed group: there are at least five men, seven women, and over ten children being held in Kurdish custody. (Many thanks to Intrepid Blog founding editor  Amar Amarasingam for updated numbers.)

The men and women that traveled to join the Islamic State knowingly traveled to join a terrorist organization. These individuals represent a potential threat to the security of Canada, given that they have proven their intent and capability to mobilize to join a terrorist group. The specific threat that each individual could pose is dependent on what knowledge or skills they acquired while living in the Islamic State; this could vary significantly and is not necessarily easily delineated by gender.

Managing the threats that these individuals could pose to Canada is fundamentally about monitoring. While prosecuting the individuals who traveled abroad would be ideal, recent history has demonstrated that this may be hard, if not impossible. We also know that they have held and may still hold extremist ideas - whether they will act on them (again) is an open question. Monitoring of these individuals would require resources, and as former CSIS director Richard Fadden noted, any returning terrorist traveler is not the only terrorist threat facing Canada -- there are also radicalized individuals here in Canada that have never travelled abroad but that also require monitoring.

I’m not ignorant of the challenge that comes with monitoring individuals and assessing the threat they could pose to Canada. In fact, as a former CSIS senior strategic intelligence analyst, I’m keenly aware of the resources required to do just that, and the imprecise nature of how terrorist threats are assessed. There is no magic checklist that can determine whether or not someone will mobilize to violence -- it is both an art and a science, and a resource-intensive one at that.

Frankly, even when presented with relatively clear evidence that an individual intends to engage in terrorist activity, there have been challenges in terms of correctly assessing the threat. Aaron Driver managed to construct an improvised explosive device while under a peace bond and presumably under RCMP surveillance, while Rehab Dughmosh conducted a terrorist attack at a Canadian Tire store after having been prevented from traveling to join the Islamic State by Turkish authorities. These two incidents demonstrate that threat assessment is not always precise, accurate, or actioned.

Other terrorists have also re-engaged in terrorist activity. Ali Dirie, a peripheral figure of the Toronto 18 plot, died while fighting in Syria for the Islamic State. Still others had their initial terrorist intent (such as travel) thwarted, and went on to commit terrorist attacks in Canada, such as the perpetrators of the October 2014 terrorist attacks, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau.

At the same time, there are approximately 60 “Canadian extremist travelers” who have returned to Canada, none of whom have conducted a terrorist attack. We can’t say for certain if they have ceased any terrorist activity, as investigations into terrorism can be lengthy processes that may only result in an arrest years after the fact. But given that few (if any) of these individuals appear to have re-engaged in terrorist activity, this may give some hope for our security services’ ability to assess and monitor the threats they may pose, and that this monitoring may not have to be indefinite. These individuals might also yield useful intelligence for both Canada and our allies. That intelligence would be far easier to extract in Canada than abroad, and could be gained through interviews, or though investigation and monitoring, with or without the terrorist traveler’s cooperation.

I definitely understand the many Canadians who are uncomfortable with the idea of repatriating these terrorist travelers because of the threat they may pose here in Canada. If Canada had a history of conducting post-event reviews of terrorist incidents, some of the concerns about whether or not our law enforcement and security services have the capability to monitor these threats might have been addressed, and confidence restored in the Canadian public. As it stands right now, the repatriation of Canada’s terrorist travelers is an imperfect solution for managing the threat they may pose, and is also the least bad option for meeting both our international obligations in terms of preventing Canadians from engaging in terrorism, and managing the threat that Canadian terrorist travelers may pose.