Amidst the backdrop of a continuing war against ISIS—which has lost most of its territory in Syria but remains an international terror threat—countries around the globe are still contending with what to do with the former militants who return home.
But one infamous Canadian ISIS fighter, who once slipped back into Canada undetected, claims western citizens worried about ex-militants like himself have nothing to fear.
“We all want to put the bad things we've done behind us, not be belittled for it,” said the Toronto-area resident and university student going by the jihadi nom de guerre Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi. “I know it may sound weird but listening to us, hearing us out... because we all want to move forward.”
Huzaifa, who made international headlines after an in-depth podcast series, “Caliphate”, released last year by the New York Times focused on his experiences fighting for ISIS in Syria, now claims federal police are actively working to help reintegrate him back into Canadian society.
Canadian politicians have hotly debated whether Justin Trudeau’s government is ensuring Canadian law enforcement are properly handling the threat of its returnees, with official government numbers putting them at just under 60 with an additional 190 still abroad (but as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale recently put it on those still overseas: “Some of them, perhaps many, are dead.”)
Security professionals consider battle-hardened returnees like Huzaifa as an unprecedented national security threat. There’s no doubt ISIS has had clear ambitions of sending cells of foreign fighters back to their home countries to undertake terror attacks or inspire homegrown actors.
This past fall, I met Huzaifa in a cramped hotel room somewhere in Ontario. (We agreed he would be considered a confidential source: I’d refer to him only by his jihadist name and not reveal his face nor disclose the exact location of our interview, because he fears reprisals against his family.) He was wearing a gray hoodie and dressed in jeans, like many other twenty-something Canadians. At first, he was visibly nervous, breaking his months-long, public silence after extensive interviews on the Times podcast, where he describes executing at least two people for ISIS during his time in Syria.
I pressed Huzaifa on those killings and he dodged my questions, saying “I don't think I'd have anything to say to that,” refusing to acknowledge his previous statements admitting to the double murders.
A Global News investigation by reporter Stewart Bell in December 2018 raised alarm bells around Huzaifa as a continuing security threat. Facebook postings and text messages show the Toronto resident allegedly having an ongoing interest in jihadist ideology and social media content.
But according to Huzaifa, since the release of the podcast in Spring 2018 Canadian authorities were immediately tracking him and in contact. He claims the RCMP, the Canadian federal police force, extensively questioned him about his time with ISIS and are now working to reintegrate him into broader society under a new de-radicalization program for ex-militants like himself.
“They're putting me on a path that they've never really tried before, which is they're doing a form of de-radicalization,” he said, which he describes as limiting his isolation from general society and focusing on providing religious guidance to answer some of his more pressing theological questions.
According to Huzaifa, that includes working with sympathetic Imams for religious counselling in tandem with maintaining regular contact with Muslim RCMP officers helping him fully abandon the principles once guiding him towards the brand of extremist ideologies ISIS espouses.
The RCMP declined to comment on Huzaifa.
“For privacy reasons, the RCMP will not comment on this individual,” said an RCMP spokesperson, explaining while it’s the government’s top priority to prosecute individuals, the agency is trying to disengage individuals like Huzaifa from extremism.
“The RCMP’s Federal Policing Intervention Program provides support to national security investigators so they may better understand what drives individuals to commit acts of violence and how the RCMP and law enforcement partners can disrupt and/or disengage an individual from the process of radicalizing to violence,” they said.
Governments around the world have taken varying approaches to their returnee problem. Some opt for de-radicalization programs seeking to reintegrate jihadists—like Denmark, which has developed a system centering on deterring returnees from violence. Other nations, such as the US, lean on their security agencies and legal mechanisms to apprehend returnees and incarcerate them under a criminal sentence. Canada is using a mixture of de-radicalization and investigative efforts, thwarting and prosecuting terrorist suspects, while the use of peace bonds—a legal police tool restricting the movements and freedoms of a suspected terrorist through bail-like conditions—are employed to keep tabs on potential public safety threats.
Though authorities are watching Huzaifa closely, he hasn’t been criminally charged and as of publication, isn’t under a peace bond.
Estimates put the number of foreign fighters that joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq at 40,000 people coming from approximately 120 countries as of February 2018. The Soufjan Center—a leading non-profit research group on global terrorism—asserts that 5,600 ISIS fighters returned to their home countries as of late 2017. Many have already died on the battlefield; more hardcore fighters continue to fight with ISIS in Syria to the bitter end; some have returned home undetected by security agencies and disillusioned with the terror group; and others find themselves in Kurdish or Iraqi jails awaiting their fate.
Huzaifa’s admissions to Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi piqued the interest of authorities and drew the ire of the Conservative Party of Canada—the official opposition—accusing the governing Liberals of being soft on terrorism. But as many pointed out, the complexities of gathering evidence on terror suspects like Abu Huzaifa, who committed their alleged crimes abroad, is no easy feat under Canadian law.
Even so, the public has reasons to fret about returning jihadists who spent months, sometimes years fighting with an insidious terror organization like ISIS, which taught them how to kill. Yet the reality is, Canada hasn’t yet seen any terror attacks from returnees like Huzaifa.
“We're not going to go out and start killing people,” he said to me. “They’re fear mongering, you know, they're making noise, unnecessary noise in the House of Commons as if there is an army of us just waiting right outside the doors... I think that this debate shows how the opposition has a lack of faith in the security forces of this country.”
Amarnath Amarasingam, a noted terrorism expert and senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says returning fighters pose unique challenges to security agencies that need to deploy expensive resources on surveilling them, but, like in the case of returnees such as Huzaifa, can’t determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not these returnees have truly left behind their terrorist pasts.
"How do you watch these guys? How long do you watch these guys? When do you say ‘OK, he's probably not a threat anymore?’ At what point can you say that safely? These are, I think, not easy questions," he said in a recent interview. "From a law enforcement perspective it's enormously difficult."
In a particularly chilling segment of Caliphate, Huzaifa explains how ISIS commanders taught courses to recruits like him on how to carry out terror attacks in the West, which coincided with a spate of ISIS operations all over Europe. When asked, he categorically denied being a sort of “sleeper cell” in Canada for the terror group.
Huzaifa has claimed to have been in Syria with ISIS sometime in 2014 or 2015 (originally sneaking into Syria over the Turkish border to join the group), only to escape months later, growing troubled by “death everywhere” and returning to Canada after a stop in Pakistan by 2016.
Public Safety Canada recently tabled its report outlining national terror threats and said the number of jihadists coming back to Canada from the Iraq and Syria conflict—only a fraction of whom were affiliated with ISIS—has “not seen a related influx in the number of Canadian Extremist Travellers (CETs) who have returned to Canada, nor does it expect to.”
Moreover, the government figures reveal few Canadian terror suspects are returning home from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, because they’re dead, imprisoned by a foreign entity, or back home and either charged or under heavy surveillance.
Even in the face of high profile attacks like the Quebec mosque shooting that killed six in 2017 and carried out by a racist gunman, the Public Safety report still places jihadist terror organizations far above far-right extremists vis-a-vis national security threats, something one group says is religiously motivated.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims, a civil liberties association and leading voice for the Muslim community of Canada, says the government report, “unfairly stigmatizes Canadian Muslim communities and other racialized minority groups while minimizing the growing role of white supremacist and far-right groups in perpetuating violent attacks inside Canada.” Recent investigations by VICE corroborates that assertion: far right extremism in both the US and Canada is alive and well, posing a legitimate national security threat in both countries.
When it comes to the reintegration of recent, jihadist terror suspects from Iraq and Syria into wider society, however, the benefits can outweigh national security interests. Amarasingam says the public view of terrorism in Canada is different to what it actually is: a crime under the Criminal Code.
“Much like with rehabilitating and reintegrating any criminal, it is important for overall public safety,” he said. “I think most of us intuitively understand that if someone commits a crime, they ought to be punished, but they also ought to be afforded an opportunity for redemption.”
And yet, as he explained, “We tend to think of terrorism differently, but I'm not entirely sure why.”
One facet of Denmark’s national de-radicalization program, a leading model, centers on persuading returnees or potential foreign fighters they can be good Muslims upholding the pillars of Islam, without being a jihadist.
“Some returnees, like Huzaifa,” said Amarasingam, “continue to struggle with religious questions, and any good intervention will eventually have to contend with theological questions that he has. It doesn't mean it's the only issue, but it's an ongoing internal conversation he is having with himself, and especially his former self.”
Another aspect of current thinking on de-radicalization, says Amarasingam, focuses less on completely changing the opinions of returnees, but more on effectively reducing their chances of carrying out any attacks.
“Scholars have started to focus more on the change in behaviour,” he said, “with an understanding that not only can we be sure of attitudinal change, but we also have no right to tell people what to think. The focus for many scholars now is on keeping individuals away from violent behaviour, regardless of whether they continue to believe things we may find repulsive.”
Ultimately, freedom fighters and terrorists aren't going to go away, not as long as there are still conflicts around the world. Reintegration can be one tool in understanding these foreign fighters and helping to combat the threats these movements pose to national security in the future.
“So, at base, a process of reintegration is beneficial to public safety. If these individuals feel the desire to be more proactive, and many of them don't, they may be quite powerful voices in mentoring future generations against violent paths. There is some evidence starting to emerge that these so-called authentic voices do have an impact,” said Amarasingam.
If Huzaifa didn’t have the resources he says he’s receiving from the feds, isolation and social stigmatization could eventually inhibit his reintegration into society, something originally driving him to ISIS in the first place. “It does give us someone to talk to, say if you're angry or you want to vent, you know you can talk to this person and then you can get whatever answer they will give you,” he said.
Like many of the other thousands of Western recruits to ISIS, Huzaifa claims he joined because of what he perceived as attacks on Muslims by the Assad regime in Syria and then the campaign carried out by coalition forces seeking to destroy the burgeoning terror-state the group was establishing.
“When I joined ISIS the basis was religious. But the one other factor which is quite dominant is the same reason why people went to go fight against ISIS—is to help innocents. I also wanted to help in a sense, because [Muslims] were being brutalized by the regime, by militias and other international players.”
Huzaifa says he was also living out a childhood fantasy of becoming a Taliban fighter.
“I've been fascinated by this stuff since I was like six years old,” he said. “At one point my career goal was to be a Taliban fighter,” he said.
As for Huzaifa, reintegration hasn’t been perfect. He continues to be under watch by security authorities and study at a university, maintaining he feels caught between his new self in Canada and the one he left behind in Syria. He wants to be able to continue practising his brand of Islam without, “apostasising,” even though he now denounces the violence ISIS continues to carry out and is adamant he would never undertake any attacks on Canadian civilians.
But assimilating into broader, mainstream Canadian culture is no small feat for a once-avowed ISIS fighter.
“I can't see myself being you know holding up my phone taking selfies on Snapchat,” he said. “Listening to Drake… Lately I can't see myself in that kind of lifestyle or I can't even force myself to be in that kind of lifestyle.”
“I guess the title of having been a Mujahedeen,” he told me, “it's just not something you want to give up so easily.”
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