Chill out about returning foreign fighters, experts tell Canadians

The Canadian government keeps saying there are 60 returned foreign fighters in the country, but experts say more context is needed.

Unlike England and France, which are seeing hundreds of fighters who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State militants return home, Canada should not expect a big influx of battle-hardened returnees, say experts, who are urging for calm amid recent alarms raised over the issue.

“I think Canadians need to calm the fuck down,” tweeted an exasperated Amarnath Amarasingam, a renowned expert on Western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo on Tuesday. “We don’t have dozens of highly trained fighters back here. Most are dead. Some women and their kids will definitely come back. And we need to think about how to rehabilitate and reintegrate these kids.

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“Don’t mean to sound too flippant, but we need to put ‘threat’ in context,” Amarasingam continued.

Two years ago, Canada’s Ministry of Public Safety was aware of 60 “extremist travelers” who had returned to Canada out of 180 people who were abroad and suspected of engaging in terrorism.

I think that number is open to all kinds of questions.

Official Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer demanded on Monday during Question Period that the government disclose how many returning Islamic State fighters “are now being welcomed back to Canada by the prime minister with the promise of reintegration services to help them,” in reference to the government’s preferred approach of aiming to reintegrate returnees instead of killing them abroad.

Goodale reiterated that the number of returnees known to the Canadian government is in the “order of 60.”

“Although we do not anticipate a large influx of returning foreign fighters, the government of Canada takes the threat they may pose very seriously, and we will continue to monitor and respond to the threat as appropriate,” Public Safety Canada spokesperson Karine Martle told VICE News in an email.

The debate in the House of Commons comes after a report last month from the US-based Soufan Centre said 5,600 ISIS fighters had returned from Iraq and Syria to their countries of origin. This includes about 400 of the 3,417 fighters from Russia, 760 of the 3,244 from Saudi Arabia, 800 of the 2,926 from Tunisia, 271 of the 1,910 from France, and 425 of the 850 people from the UK.

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The study said the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq came to a halt in late 2015, after ISIS began to suffer serious battlefield blows and countries implemented tighter travel restrictions.

Researchers studying Western fighters abroad say Canada should not expect a flood of returning foreign fighters, while urging the government to be more transparent about who the 60 supposed returnees in the country are.

“I think that number is open to all kinds of questions,” Lorne Dawson, another University of Waterloo professor studying Western foreign fighters, told VICE News. “We’ve inquired about the number and have received evasive answers.”

Dawson explains the initial figure of 180 people leaving Canada to fight includes everyone who has gone overseas to do anything terrorism-related. This includes, for example, those who went abroad and interacted with family members with connections to organizations like Hezbollah, and Canadian residents who travelled to Libya in the lead-up to the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gadaffi — not necessarily people who went to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They could also be returnees from conflicts in Yemen and Somalia.

“It’s really a big grab bag of people. It certainly shouldn’t be interpreted as those who were engaged in combat or warfare or serious terrorism in Syria or Iraq,” he said.

The Canadian government has been very sloppy with how it talks about returnees.

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Since 2012, about 100 people have left for Syria and Iraq, according to Dawson and Amarasingam’s research. The professors can identify 65 of them by name. Most joined ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, which are listed terrorist groups. Others joined groups that aren’t formally listed terrorist entities and therefore won’t be charged if they return.

“The Canadian government has been very sloppy with how it talks about returnees,” said Amarasingam, going on to explain why the numbers security officials have floated need more context.

He estimates that 22 former Canadian residents who joined ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra have since died.

That death toll could be higher, especially since the conflict has become particularly lethal for ISIS members in the past few months, making it more difficult for researchers to communicate with sources on the ground.

Another issue is that the government includes in their number of returnees at least 6 people who went to Syria, came back to Canada, and left again (and possibly died), said Dawson. One example is Ahmed Waseem, of Windsor, who returned to Canada claiming that he’d been injured near the Syrian border. He later returned to Syria despite his imam and family’s efforts to get him to stay, and may have died there.

Dawson said he’s aware of about a dozen ISIS fighters who have returned. He expects the grand total Canada will ever see is between 20 and 25. Based on statistics from previous conflicts, it’s safe to assume at least a third of those who have gone abroad to join ISIS have died, and that half of those who are left won’t return to Canada, knowing they’ll likely to be charged with terrorism offences. He expects them to move to places where they believe the struggle is continuing — Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, for example.

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It only takes only one individual to make their way back into Canada, who is still seriously radicalized

Of those who do come back to Canada, a third will be likely disillusioned with the cause and another third will be suffering from PTSD, which is likely to neutralize them as a threat, Dawson said.

“The threat to Canada is small, it’s manageable, but it’s very real,” said Dawson. “It only takes only one individual to make their way back into Canada, who is still seriously radicalized.”

Classic intelligence practices say the best approach is to track returnees and engage in a long debriefing process upon their return to Canada. Unless there’s enough evidence to lay criminal charges, then let them go, Dawson explained. Next, intelligence officials would see if there’s enough evidence based on their social media activity to issue a terrorism peace bond. While the suspect is on a peace bond, Canadian authorities would work with international agencies to collect information to build a case for prosecution.

The government would not go into specifics into how returning foreign fighters are monitored, but outlined a number of other security measures that are already in place. The Criminal Code makes it an offence to leave or attempt to leave Canada to commit certain terrorist acts, and the RCMP’s National Security Joint Operations Centre examines cases of “extremist travelers” to coordinate responses.

The Passenger Protect Program, otherwise known as a no-fly list, is supposed to mitigate threats to transportation security and disrupt travel for terrorism purposes by denying boarding. The government can also cancel, revoke, or refuse passports in order to prevent national security threats, a Public Safety official told VICE News.

But Canada needs to be “much more transparent about these numbers and how they are calculated,” said Amarasingam. “Too much needless classification, which is creating too much needless confusion and alarm.”