Toronto Star: Canada has planned for years to handle returnees from the Islamic State. Now the plan has to work.

Our Director of Research, Michael King, chats with the Toronto Star about Canada’s preparations to handle returnees from the Islamic State.

Original Article

Published by Allan Woods in the Toronto Star on January 29, 2023

They started disappearing a decade ago.

Slowly and mysteriously, then in a growing wave, young Canadians left behind their homes and families to join fellow Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq or to experience the radicalized utopia of an Islamic caliphate promised by the Islamic State terrorism group.

Five or so years ago, psychologists such as Michael King and Ghayda Hassan began preparing for their imminent return — one that is expected only now, with a judge’s ruling last week that the federal government must bring Canadian citizens home from overseas detention camps.

“When the caliphate kind of crumbled and lost all its territory,” said King, of Alberta’s Organization for the Prevention of Violence, “there was this massive fear that everyone was going to come back to their countries of origin and charges wouldn’t be laid because it was hard to collect evidence in foreign countries.”

Like surfers in a strange sea, psychologists, social workers, police and radicalization experts waited in vain for that wave of returning male ISIS fighters, female adherents and their children.

Separately, there are four Canadian men who range in age from late 20s to early 40s. They have been detained for years in makeshift Syrian prisons on suspicion they fought with or supported ISIS, but they have never been charged with a crime.

One of them — Jack Letts, the 28-year-old son of a British mother and Canadian father — was reportedly being held with up to 30 other men in a cell built for six. Claiming to have been tortured, he is seeking the protection of the Canadian government after the U.K. revoked his citizenship.

“None of them have been heard from since 2019,” Justice Henry Brown noted in deciding that Ottawa was violating the men’s right to return to Canada by not negotiating their repatriation.

The government has already struck a deal to bring home the Canadian women and children. The fate of the men is unclear; meanwhile, officials have also offered repatriation to 10 other Canadian children, though not to their mothers — the primary caregivers — because they do not have citizenship.

In the long wait for this mass repatriation, those tasked with helping them reintegrate and rehabilitate have been preparing by studying other countries’ successes and failures in dealing with citizens who went to fight or live with terrorist groups active in the region. Countries such as Kazakhstan and Kosovo have become the unlikely proving grounds for the theories and techniques used to handle those who, in the academic lingo, are referred to as foreign fighters.

In Canada, this knowledge has been put to work in a handful of cases of radicalized individuals: People who travelled to the lands controlled by the Islamic State and returned under the radar. People who were caught and prevented from committing the crime of leaving to join the overseas terror group. People who have served jail sentences for terrorism offences and participated in court-ordered counselling as a condition of their release.

But for Hassan, a psychologist who founded Montreal’s Canadian Practitioners Network for the Prevention of Radicalization and Extremist Violence, the first true test of all that she had been preparing for came one day last October.

British Columbia’s Kimberly Polman, Montreal’s Oumaima Chouay and Chouay’s two children were repatriated from a Kurdish-run detention camp in northeastern Syria. They touched down in Montreal and there, along with the RCMP national security investigators, was an expert team of health professionals to start the complex and delicate process of reintegrating and rehabilitating the returned Canadians.

“It was the first time that this plan, which had been developed, was put in motion,” Hassan said.

The police were there to look for breaches of the law committed on Canadian soil or abroad.

Upon her arrival in Montreal, Chouay was arrested for terrorism offences and arrested. She was released on bail after a Jan. 6 hearing with several conditions, including that she wear a GPS tracking bracelet, not use social media and not contact several potential witnesses who could testify in her eventual criminal trial.

For others, the legal reckoning can take years.

Hussein Borhot, a Calgary man, was only in arrested in 2020, seven years after he travelled to Syria to join ISIS. He pleaded guilty last year to two charges, including participating in a terrorist group and a kidnapping for the purposed of a terrorist group, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

A spokesperson for the RCMP did not say how its national security investigators were specifically preparing for the return of the six women and 13 children who were part of the Federal Court case, or whether any of those returning will face criminal charges here.

“The RCMP conducts criminal investigations to the fullest extent that they are able, with a view to ensure public safety, to determine if a criminal offence was committed and to gather evidence,” Cpl. Kim Chamberland in response to questions. “The RCMP will lay criminal charges when there is supporting evidence and when it is deemed in the public interest to proceed.”

The health professionals providing psychosocial support — there are teams in Montreal, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver — operate in concert with, but separately from, law enforcement. Upon arrival back in Canada, they will examine the physical and mental health of the adults and assess the needs of young children whose life experiences may be limited to the brutality of ISIS or the squalid conditions of the detention camps, which hold tens of thousands of individuals, most of whom are Syrian or Iraqi.

“The person who left is coming back with a different set of experiences,” Hassan said. “Of course, there is the euphoria of reuniting, but things can be challenging.”

“We all have some experience with people returning from overseas, so that’s a good thing,” says King. “It’s no one’s first rodeo, but it’s going to be everyone’s biggest rodeo.”

However, the returnees have varying experiences, beliefs and needs. King suggests discarding any assumptions that adults being repatriated to Canada, having joined the Islamic State, now stand behind the atrocities — including beheadings, crucifixions and other violent executions — that the terror group committed and used as tools of recruitment.

“Some of these people will have disavowed the ideology a few hours after arriving in ISIS-controlled territory all those years ago and probably said, ‘This is the biggest error of my life,’ but it was unsafe to leave,” King said.

“Others, however, will still espouse that ideology.”

Therapists take the view that an individual’s extremism is an outward symptom of deeper problems. To resolve the grand issues, they start by tackling the smaller challenges in the hope of rebuilding people’s lives one concrete step at a time.

For example, steps are taken to ensure the individual has a place to live and the necessary documents, like health cards or social insurance numbers, to access public services. Children are enrolled in schools and granted the necessary educational supports to help them bridge the divide the likely exists between them and their Canadian peers.

Another urgent issue, and a longer-term one, is ensuring returnees obtain medical treatment for post-traumatic stress or mental-health problems that may have gone untended or worsened for years while living in a war zone and in the camps.

A 2021 report looking at the reintegration of women and children from Kosovo who were repatriated from Syria found “clear signs of PTSD, characterized by sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, panic triggered by loud noises such as airplanes flying overhead or firecrackers.”

A second report looking at the reintegration of people from across the western Balkans said that children also showed similar signs of traumatic stress, including screaming in panic and running for shelter at the sound of approaching planes, parental separation anxiety and selective mutism — refusing to speak in certain environments and situations despite being physically capable.

The women “all seem pleased to be back home,” the report noted, but there were “worrying reports that the majority of women refuse or are unable to take responsibility for their decision to travel to Syria, to have exposed their children to life in a war zone.”

King said the psychosocial teams try to work with individuals, rather than confronting them on matters of ideologies or religious belief.

“If you take an argumentative or adversarial stance where you’re trying to convince them that they are wrong or the ideology they espouse is wrong … it’s going to elicit some sort of reaction,” said King. “No one wants to be told they are wrong, so you might be entrenching them in that world view.”

Deprogramming someone who holds or espouses radical views does not enter into the equation.

“It’s not that we don’t do (deradicalization). It’s just that it’s not the top priority,” said Hassan. “For me, deradicalization is more the end outcome of the process. The person ends up being deradicalized and ends up giving up their ideologies … but it’s not because we’ve sat and spent hours discussing ideology.”

None of it is expected to be simple or comfortable.

Returnees are coming back to a secular western society that they once rejected and fled and that they may still believe is sinful, evil and corrupted. Beyond that, there’s the harsh reality that many in this country may have little sympathy for their current plight.

“They will come back to face a society here that stigmatizes them because they’re still being considered by many people — sometimes quite wrongfully, actually — as terrorists,” Hassan said. “Many of them have been kind of drawn into this and mostly been victims, actually. Some may have been perpetrators, of course. I’m not denying that.”

In Quebec, there have been more than 100 cases involving people who have been or are at risk of radicalization, and Hassan said the majority of their interventions have had successful outcomes, which she measures in terms such as improved mental health conditions, reduced post-traumatic stress and the establishment and maintenance of long-term relationships.

“Many of our clients may be socially disconnected from work, school or family, so success looks like they are improving this,” she said. “For example, managing to get a job and to keep it or improving relationships with family members.”

Some countries, particularly Muslim-majority ones, have placed an emphasis on theology and the need for radicalized individuals to adopt more tolerant and inclusive religious views. But all recognize the need to prioritize the social reintegration of repatriated citizens.

“I think the model that we are watching, because it may be problematic, is the French model, where they were systematically detained and children are systematically placed in foster care, which is not, fortunately, the model we use here,” said Hassan.

Being a violent extremist, or having espoused radical views, does not automatically mean the person is a bad parent, said King.

“I know that’s a paradox, but they can still be a warm and loving parent, and provide emotional and psychological safety to the child,” he said.

But Hassan added that health professionals would not hesitate to contact child welfare authorities if they believe that the well-being of a young person is threatened by the radical beliefs or extremist behaviour of a parent.

“If we removed children from their parents because of their history of beliefs or behaviours,” she said, “then most of the Mafia parents would have their children removed.”

Allan Woods. “Canada has planned for years to handle returnees from the Islamic State. Now the plan has to work” Toronto Star, 29 January 2023