Calgary man pleads guilty to terrorism charges after fighting as ISIS sniper in Syria

A Calgary man has pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, admitting to a kidnapping during a year-long stint fighting as a trained sniper with ISIS in Syria.

'I didn't know any better,' says Hussein Sobhe Borhot, who will be sentenced later

Hussein Sobhe Borhot, pictured here by a courtroom artist, was in Syria from May 2013 to June 2014. He has admitted to a kidnapping and fighting as a trained ISIS sniper. (Mary Haasdyk)

A Calgary man has pleaded guilty to terrorism offences, admitting to a kidnapping during a year-long stint fighting as a trained sniper with ISIS in Syria.

Hussein Sobhe Borhot, 36, pleaded guilty to participating in terrorist activities outside Canada and committing a crime at the direction of a terrorist organization. 

Borhot spent from May 2013 to June 2014 in Syria, after sneaking across the border from Turkey with the help of a Turkish military officer who'd been paid to allow ISIS fighters to cross over.

RCMP worked with the FBI and U.S. Department of Defence throughout the seven-year investigation. 

'I didn't know better'

When he returned to Calgary, Borhot was the subject of two undercover operations, telling an officer he'd been inspired by the first-person shooter video game Call of Duty.

Defence lawyer Rame Katrib along with prosecutors Kent Brown and Domenic Puglia negotiated the plea to two of the four charges Borhot faced. 

On Thursday, Court of Queen's Bench Justice David Labrenz accepted the pleas and adjourned the case to next month for a sentencing hearing. Borhot will remain on bail, on strict conditions pending sentencing.

When Labrenz asked Borhot if he admitted the facts of the case, the offender said he did but added, "I didn't know better."

The maximum sentence on the second offence is life in prison, although lawyers have not said what they will be seeking.

Details of Borhot's crimes come from an agreed statement of facts, read aloud by Puglia. 

Initial plan: suicide bomber

The agreed statement of facts does not detail how he was recruited to fight for ISIS but begins with Borhot boarding a plane in Calgary on May 9, 2013, headed for Turkey.

According to the document, Borhot did not tell his wife or father of his plans to travel to Syria. He used a prepaid credit card loaded with $3,500 to book his flights.

From Turkey, Borhot crossed into Syria, where he "did a lot of training" and received weapons, including grenades and an AK-47.

At first, Borhot told the undercover officer, he wanted to be a suicide bomber but changed his mind and became a fighter instead. 

During his military training, Borhot impressed his leader with his sniper skills, ranking second out of the trainees.

The kidnappings

At one point, while the undercover officer was over for dinner, Borhot told him about a time he travelled to a village with his ISIS group and kidnapped opposition fighters he believed to be with the Free Syrian Army. 

But the next day, back at his camp, Borhot said he was told by his leader to return one of the victims who was considered "innocent."

While on that mission, Borhot himself was kidnapped.

ISIS then negotiated a prisoner swap and Borhot was returned to his group.

Over the course of the two undercover operations, which took place between 2016 and 2020, Borhot told the officer he would not kill anyone who was not trying to kill him but also said he "loved shooting and jihad."

'Many died'

In the first operation — which lasted more than two years, taking place between October 2016 and December 2018 — an RCMP officer befriended Borhot at a mosque.

The two chatted about "innocent subjects" like work, politics and religion, according to the agreed statement of facts.

They exchanged phone numbers and talked over text, phone and in person. 

The officer told Borhot that he supported religious fundamentalists in his home country.

Three months into that relationship, Borhot began talking about his role as an ISIS fighter.

Borhot disclosed that "many died" during his time in Syria and became excited describing battles, according to the officer.

Borhot said he'd return 

Borhot said if he had an opportunity to go back, he would: "for religion, anything."

The suspected terrorist also confirmed a news report that featured him and described his ISIS intake form, which had been obtained by CBC News. 

On March 11, 2016, the CBC's Adrienne Arsenault reported that ISIS paperwork revealed six Canadian names. 

Following that report, RCMP determined that one of the ISIS documents, an intake form for the terrorist organization, described Borhot. 

It included his name, nickname, mother's name, date of birth, point of entry, previous occupation (a pipe installer) and Calgary phone numbers.

Call of Duty

The form also showed that between fighter, suicide bomber or inghimasi (trained guerilla fighters who expect to be killed), Borhot's choice of military designation was "fighter."

Four years later, the FBI gave RCMP Borhot's ISIS exit form. It indicated he'd left the terrorist group on May 30, 2014, after a final assignment as a fighter in Homs Province. 

The first undercover operation ended with the officer telling Borhot he had to return to his country because of increased scrutiny from RCMP.

That officer resurfaced in 2020 and the relationship rekindled as Borhot helped the officer set up Call of Duty on his Playstation. 

He referred to the video game as "good training" and said parts were like real fighting.

By July 2020, investigators had what they needed and laid terrorism charges against Borhot.

Two months later, Borhot's cousin, Jamal Borhot, was also charged with related offences. He does not yet have a trial date set and will be back in court on May 13.