Trudeau defends CSIS after U.K. author claims agency informant smuggled girls into Syria

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood behind the country’s top civilian intelligence agency on Wednesday in response to renewed allegations that one of its contractors helped traffic three British teenage girls to Islamic State extremists seven years ago.

PM says the government will probe the claims and expects intelligence agencies to follow the rules

Shamima Begum made worldwide headlines when, at 15, she left the U.K. with two teenage friends to join ISIS. (Alba Sotorra/Sky Documentaries)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood behind the country's top civilian intelligence agency on Wednesday in response to an allegation that one of its contractors helped traffic three British teenage girls to Islamic State extremists seven years ago.

A new book by U.K.-based writer Richard Kerbaj — The Secret History of the Five Eyes — is set to be published on Thursday. It claims that an informant for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) smuggled Shamima Begum, 15 at the time, and her school friends Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase — 16 and 15 at the time — into northern Syria, and that the informant told his Canadian handlers.

The book goes on to claim that CSIS later approached the counter-terrorism branch of London's Metropolitan Police — which was investigating the disappearance of the teenagers — and asked that the agency not become the focus of attention.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says CSIS and other intelligence agencies have to abide by 'strict rules.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau said the government will follow up on the claims.

"The fight against terrorism requires our intelligence services to continue to be flexible and to be creative in their approaches," Trudeau said following the swearing-in of two cabinet ministers on Thursday. 

"But every step of the way they are bound by strict rules, by principles and values that Canadians hold dear, including around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and we expect that those rules be followed."

Trudeau said "there are rigorous oversight mechanisms" governing intelligence agencies — a reference to the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP).

(Left to right) Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and 15-year-old Amira Abase go through security at Gatwick airport before catching a flight to Turkey on Feb 17, 2015. (Metropolitan Police/The Associated Press)

Kerbaj alleges the informant, Mohammed Al Rasheed, facilitated the teenage girls' journey to ISIS-controlled Syria, took phone photos of the passports used by the British schoolgirls and showed them to his Canadian handler in Jordan. By the time the information was passed to the U.K. and Metropolitan Police, Kerbaj claims, the girls were already in ISIS territory.

Two of the girls — Sultana and Abase — are now dead, while Begum has been denied permission to return to the U.K. and has been stripped of her British citizenship.

Her lawyers have argued that the removal of her citizenship was unjust because she was a victim of human trafficking.

Tasnime Akunjee, one of her lawyers, told CBC Radio's As It Happens on Wednesday that the fact his client was trafficked is well known, but hearing that Canadian officials were aware of it is "helpful" to her case.

"The fact is that they communicated it to the police, who didn't communicate it to us. Or be it that Richard Walton, the head of the investigation at the time, decided for the last seven years not to mention any of this to the family but rather to put it into a book that he was happy to publish, which we think is rather egregious of him," said Akunjee, referring to the interview Walton gave to Kerbaj for the forthcoming book.

A 'twisted phrase'

Trudeau's assertion that intelligence agencies are expected to be "flexible" and "creative" drew a sharp response from Akunjee, who cited the rendition and torture of Canadian engineer Mahar Arar in Syria during the early 2000s. 

"It's all well and good for a prime minister or a president or a head of state to say, 'Yes, we follow the rules,' but that's patently not the case," Akunjee said.

"In many examples, and in this case, being flexible is rather a, maybe, twisted phrase when you're talking about intelligence being worth more than the lives of children."

Both Canadian and British security officials say they don't comment on intelligence matters.

At the moment, Begum lives in a detention camp in northern Syria. She has given birth to three children, all of whom died young.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.