Montreal mother's odyssey to rescue daughter from ISIS pays off

A Montreal mother said she is relieved her daughter is finally safe from ISIS, even though she will most likely face terrorism charges when she returns to Canada.

'I would risk my life to save her,' says desperate Montreal mother

Saeeda, a Montreal mother, is waiting for her daughter to return to Canada. (Michelle Shephard)

A Montreal mother said she is relieved her daughter is finally safe from ISIS, even though she will most likely face terrorism charges when she returns to Canada. 

The young woman, known as Amina, not her real name, left Canada in November 2014 at the age of 18, entered Syria and signed up with ISIS.

She married a foreign fighter from Germany and in the years since, she has given birth to two children in war-torn Syria.

With the help of her mother, Amina recently escaped from ISIS and is in Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. She is expected back in Canada sometime soon, but her future is uncertain. 

Her mother, Saeeda, also not her real name, is aware that Amina could be charged with terrorism offences and if convicted, she likely faces time in prison.

"This is not a mother who is naive. She recognizes that her daughter has made a horrible mistake," said Michelle Shephard, the Toronto Star reporter who has chronicled Saeeda's journey to save Amina in The Way Out, a new documentary airing Sunday Jan. 21 on CBC Docs POV.

Typical Montreal teen

In the documentary, Saeeda describes her daughter as a "typical Montreal teenager" who wasn't all that religious.

She said she was shocked when Amina suddenly started to wear the chador, a type of religious clothing that covers the head and entire body. 

When Amina was 17, "she became obsessed with the war in Syria and watched hours of propaganda videos," said Saeeda. 

"Amina was always talking about the children in Syria."

Saeeda said she believes this made her daughter vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, aided by online videos and other material.   

"She could have been recruited online, or perhaps she was influenced by a friend," Saeeda told Shephard.

Shortly after arriving in Syria, Amina sent a message to her mother that read: "I emigrated to serve Allah."

Then months later, another text:  "I want out ... send me money."

Canada's security agency 

Saeeda said she believed she had an obligation to help her daughter, and, through her lawyer, she reached out to Canadian security agencies in Ottawa for advice.

"I would risk my life to save her," Saeeda says in the documentary.

There is very little CSIS can do to help the parents of men or women who leave Canada to join extremist groups abroad.

In a recent statement from CSIS, the agency said there are "currently just over 190 extremists with a nexus to Canada who are abroad, including in Iraq and Syria."

Tahera Mufti, CSIS's chief of public affairs, said she couldn't say how many of those are women.

"CSIS is unable to elaborate on the gender breakdown as the disclosure of more detailed information could identify specific operational interests," Mufti said. 

Saeeda and Montreal counterterrorism expert, Hicham Tiflati, in Istanbul during her efforts to free her daughter. (Michelle Shephard)

In a particularly tense moment while making the documentary, Shephard received a call from a CSIS agent.

"The agent said CSIS had picked up chatter that we were heading to Gaziantep, and they believed, if they knew, ISIS may also know. They cautioned us not to go to the Turkish border with Syria, and we heeded that warning," said Shephard.

ISIS bride

Shortly after arriving in the ISIS capital of Raqqa in winter 2014, Amina married foreign ISIS fighter known by the nom de guerre Abu Salaheddin.

Abu Salaheddin was a Muslim convert from Germany whom Shephard describes as being dedicated to the cause of ISIS. 

Anti-ISIS spies inside Syria told Saeeda that Abu Salaheddin was known to be "difficult and cruel," and because of an injury he suffered in a battle, ISIS had assigned him to an administrative role in Raqqa. 

A year after their marriage, Amina gave birth to their first child.

At the time of her rescue in October 2017, she was eight months pregnant and her second child was born shortly after.   

The Way Out chronicles how Saeeda enlisted the help of a well-respected counter-extremism expert in Montreal; a Syrian human rights group working to document atrocities committed against civilians in Syria; and Thuwar Raqqa, a Syrian militia that fights ISIS and specializes in helping people defect from the group.

Saeeda prepares for her daughter's return, folding baby clothes she purchased for her two grandchildren born while her daughter was abroad married to an ISIS fighter. (Michelle Shephard)

Members of Thuwaar Raqqa were reluctant to get involved but eventually agreed to help locate Amina and her husband.

Lies and deception

Realizing her daughter could be in danger if caught plotting to escape, Saeeda switched tactics and turned to an unlikely ally — her daughter's husband. 

"Saeeda misled him into believing that she had found a way to get Amina safely back to Canada while omitting to tell him that Amina could likely be taken into custody in Syria and may face serious charges when she returns to Canada," said Shephard. 

Abu Salaheddin lowered his guard and opened the door for members of Thuwaar Raqqa, who scuttled Amina to safety. 

It remains to be seen whether Amina will be charged or placed on a peace bond if it is deemed she poses a threat to Canada's national security.

Toronto criminal lawyer Nader Hasan has been retained to negotiate Amina's surrender to Canadian authorities when she returns.

The Way Out airs on CBC-TV  at 9 p.m. on Sunday Jan. 21. It was directed by Michelle Shephard and David York of 52 Media Inc., and produced by Bryn Hughes in association with the Toronto Star and the CBC.