We followed one Canadian mother as she tried to get her daughter out of ISIS territory in SyriaPeople will wonder why you would tell your daughter’s story? It’s a question I’ve often thought about, not just when I asked Saeeda, but countless other times when covering stories on terrorism.
On our final day of filming, we were in Saeeda’s Montreal apartment, standing in the room she was preparing for the return of her daughter, and the two granddaughters she has never met. The small bedroom was immaculate: Two cribs, a bed piled with carefully folded infant onesies; a drawer filled with tiny Gap socks.
“People will wonder why you would tell your daughter’s story?”
It’s a question I’ve often thought about, not just when I asked Saeeda, but countless other times when covering stories on terrorism. Why do people open themselves up, especially recently, when vicious social media quips pass for debate, and condemnation is often swifter than comprehension?
“I don’t want another mother, or other Canadian mothers, to have to go through – live through – my situation, my suffering, and to have their children stolen,” she answered.
“I tell you, I never saw this coming. I couldn’t have imagined it. We talked about Syria. We talked about war in the world. But I never thought, never…” she trailed off.
“I knew about kids who left to go there, and I thought, those poor parents. We even talked about that! My daughter and I talked about that. I didn’t know it would be me next.”
Few Canadian parents – thankfully – can imagine receiving the call Saeeda did one day in November 2014. “Mama,” her daughter said, “I’ve left to join ISIS.”
More than 100 Canadians have left to join the so-called Islamic State or other banned terrorist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq and only a few have returned home. The situation in Canada and the U.S. does not compare to what European or Middle Eastern countries face, as hundreds are trying to return.
But as security officials often say, all it takes is one perpetrator and one attack.
And yet just as important is how we, as a country, deal with this issue. Will Canada’s policies actually bring security – or exacerbate the problem for the next generation?
In the fall of 2015, filmmakers David York and Bryn Hughes had asked me to collaborate on a documentary about those who defect from ISIS, and what happens to them when they come home. At the time, I was on a yearlong leave from the Toronto Star as an Atkinson Fellow, researching policies concerning “returnees,” a field that had become known as countering violent extremism, or CVE. For years, I had covered the aftermath of terrorist attacks
and investigated why they happened. But the harder question was how to stop the cycle, how to prevent another group like ISIS.
My research took me to Tunisia, Somalia, Turkey, Denmark and elsewhere, to see how other countries were coping and I interviewed dozens of defectors, security and government officials, analysts and community leaders. Ironically, the hardest country to get people to talk about these issues was here in Canada. I had a database of more than 60 Canadians who had left for Syria and Iraq but few, if any of those listed, or their relatives, would speak.
A mother’s lonely plight
The first time I met Saeeda, she was introduced by a mutual acquaintance, Hicham Tiflati, who is one of Canada’s preeminent authorities when it comes to violent radicalization and the challenges young Muslims have faced living in the West since 9/11. Fluent in English, Arabic and French, Tiflati has spent more than a decade, interviewing hundreds of youths for his PhD on this topic.
Saeeda’s hands shook. She was terrified. Scared others would discover her dreadful family secret.
But she asked a lot of questions, about what it would mean to be part of a film, conversations that would continue for weeks.
Our answers were blunt. We wanted to document what she was going through. We would protect her identity by using a pseudonym (Saeeda is not her real name) and not show her face, but anyone who knew her and saw the documentary would recognize her.
There were four outcomes for her daughter judging by cases of other foreigners who joined ISIS – she would be killed, simply stop contact and disappear, she would be charged and imprisoned abroad or in Canada, or she would come home and try to resume her life. We would keep filming, no matter the outcome.
At the beginning, I think Saeeda just appreciated being able to talk about her lonely plight, especially with those who had experience in this field. Over the months, and with an incredibly talented and respectful crew of Iris Ng, Wes Legge and Mary Wong, Saeeda often just forgot about the camera and microphone.
We had no idea where her mission – or our film – would go and the risks and obstacles we would face.
On the day we arrived to film in Germany last summer, there was an email from CSIS. The subject line said “urgent.”
In the more than sixteen years of covering national security issues since the 9/11 attacks, I had never received such an email. When I called back to Ottawa I was told that an agent would come to see us. They knew we were in Germany. But in the end we spoke by phone instead, a call that is included in the film.
We were told that CSIS had heard about our travels with Saeeda through “a number of different sources” and wanted to warn us that traveling to Turkey’s southern border with Syria – which had been our plan, although we had not yet booked flights – would be dangerous. As the agent said, “this troubles us because obviously if we are aware of it, and we kind of weren’t even looking, other people may be aware of it … maybe ISIL,” he said using one of the acronyms for the group known also as ISIS or Daesh.
“Between you and me, Michelle, that scares the shit out of me.”
Two members of Thuwar Raqqa, a militia aligned with coalition forces that extracted defectors and turned them over to authorities from their home country, had agreed to meet with Saeeda in the Turkish towns of Gaziantep or Sanliurfa, near the border.
Although travel there had once been relatively easy, the risk was increasing. The U.S. embassy had warned that terror groups in the area had “threatened to kidnap and assassinate Westerners.”
We had no way of assessing the CSIS warning. Saeeda had not told CSIS, nor the RCMP of this trip, but planned on alerting them – which she would do weeks later through her lawyer – once she convinced her daughter to leave ISIS. She knew the law, as did we, and there was never any intention to bring her daughter out of Syria without the Canadian government being involved.
We decided given the CSIS warning that the risk for us to go to Gaziantep was too great, especially since we were hardly inconspicuous, traveling with a crew, plus Hicham and Saeeda. After Germany, we flew to Istanbul and stayed there, bringing those people Saeeda needed to talk to, to us instead.
A long wait and a harrowing journey
For more than six months, while in Turkey and then back here in Canada, Saeeda waited and then communicating back and forth on WhatsApp with her daughter’s obstinate husband, a German convert and ISIS member and by Skype, with Thuwar Raqqa, as her Toronto lawyer talked with Canadian security officials and the crown attorney’s office.
Slowly, the plan to bring Saeeda’s daughter (nearly eight-months pregnant at the time), and her two-year-old granddaughter out of ISIS territory and into a region of Syria controlled by Kurdish troops came together. There were risks they would be killed during her escape – either by ISIS if they discovered her defecting, or caught in the crossfire of the war.
After a harrowing journey, Saeeda’s daughter and granddaughter did manage to reach Kurdish territory with a Thuwar Raqqa escort. Days later, while in custody, she gave birth to her second daughter.
Canadian authorities have said all three are in good health, and have prepared their travel documents to bring them back to Montreal.
That’s where the documentary ends. But it’s where we hope the conversation begins.
The Way Out is an intimate, behind-the-scenes account of one story, but one that has far reaching implications.
Saeeda’s daughter will be one of Canada’s first high-profile cases of a “returnee,” and when the 22-year-old comes home as a mother of two, her story will be hotly debated from the House of Commons to the gutters of social media.
Perhaps my question to Saeeda was wrong that day in her apartment, as is it not her daughter’s story she let film us in The Way Out, but her own.
Her daughter’s story has yet to be told.
Michelle Shephard covers terrorism, civil rights and foreign affairs both in Canada and around the world. She is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, author, and award-winning journalist, a three-time recipient of the National Newspaper Awards and part of a Toronto Star team that won the Governor General’s Michener Award for Public Service Journalism. She was the Atkinson Journalism Fellow in 2015/2016. Her newest book is Decade of Fear - Reporting From Terrorism’s Grey Zone.
Shephard co-directed the documentary The Way Out with David York.