Families of young Quebecers married to ISIS militants want them to come home

Relatives of at least four young Quebecers who have started families with ISIS militants hope their daughters will be able to return to Canada, now that the group appears to have lost major territorial control in Syria and Iraq.

Director of Montreal’s deradicalization centre knows of 4 women with children fathered by ISIS fighters

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated their victory over ISIS in Raqqa, where the militants had declared their capital, in this October file photo. The families of at least four Quebec women married to ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria want them to come home. (Reuters)

Relatives of at least four young Quebecers who have started families with ISIS militants hope their daughters will be able to return to Canada, now that the group appears to have lost major territorial control in Syria and Iraq.

Herman Deparice-Okomba, director of Montreal's Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, says he began to receive a higher number of calls from the young women's families at the beginning of October.

"We are talking about four to five families with whom we talk to daily," he said, adding that he has seen photos of the women's children.

These women are married to fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, not leaders of the group, Deparice-Okomba said.

The families say their loved ones have been brainwashed and they are trying to disentangle the women from the group, even if it means they will be prosecuted criminally upon their return to Canada.

Each of the cases is unique, but in general, the families of the young women don't hear from them often, Deparice-Okomba said.

Canadian in Kurdish custody

In an email to CBC News, Toronto lawyer Nader Hasan confirmed he has been working with Canadian authorities for months in an attempt to try to extricate a young woman from ISIS territory.

It is unclear if she is one of the women whose family has been in touch with Montreal's deradicalization centre.

Hasan said the woman was able to escape several weeks ago with the help of coalition allies and is in Kurdish custody as she awaits transfer to Canada.

Young women who become radicalized and make the trip to ISIS-controlled lands are usually quickly married to a fighter with ISIS and begin a strictly controlled domestic life of child-rearing, cooking and cleaning, experts say.

In recent months, ISIS has suffered consecutive defeats at the hands of separate but simultaneous offensives in Iraq and Syria by the Russian-backed Syrian forces and allied militias, as well as U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian fighters.

Observers have wondered whether those defeats would bring returnees back to their Western countries of origin.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) estimates that 180 people with ties to Canada have joined a terrorist group abroad, and about half of them are believed to be in Syria or Iraq.

About 60 extremist travellers have returned to Canada, CSIS says.

No clear procedure

The key is to ensure public safety when the women who left return to Canada, Deparice-Okomba said.

"We have to make sure that these people do not pose a threat to us."

There is no clear procedure to deal with what happens when these young women who have married ISIS fighters return, according to Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst.

A member loyal to ISIS waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria. CSIS says it believes 180 people with Canadian connections are engaged in terrorist activity abroad. (Reuters)

"Theoretically, it's against the law, we should charge them with a crime," he said.

The big challenge for Canadian authorities is to gather evidence to convict ISIS supporters returning to Canada.

Gurski explained though CSIS has information about them, it is rarely admissible in court, and added there are other questions surrounding these women such as whether their children can obtain Canadian citizenship.

Families in Canada concerned

According to Benjamin Ducol, head of research at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Quebec City, the Canadian approach should focus on rehabilitation and not punishment of these individuals.

He believes that instead of condemning citizens who want to come back or refusing their entry, it's important to give an opportunity to these people to change their way of thinking and live a normal life.

"They decided to go abroad, they need to face the decision that they have made," Ducol said. "I think we should focus on this rehabilitative view."

For families whose daughters left for Syria, getting in contact with their children overseas has been possible, but constrained, he added. There are fears ISIS militants might be watching the women while they talk, so that do not reveal too much information.

For the three or four families that Ducol has worked with in Quebec City, all they want is to have their children back, he said.

"They think it was a mistake [to leave Canada], and I think there is an avenue for them to come back to Canada and reach a normal life," Ducol said.

But there are challenges to achieving that "normal life," especially psychosocial ones, he said.

"When you live two, three years in a field torn by war, when you have seen atrocities, witnessed war on a daily basis, you are experiencing trauma," Ducol said.

"Returning to normal life is going to be difficult to adjust."

Based on a report by Radio-Canada's Bahador Zabihiyan, CBC's Nancy Wood and The Associated Press