The Current

Canadians accused of joining ISIS could soon come home. What happens next?

The federal government has agreed to repatriate 19 women and children from detention camps for suspected ISIS members in Syria, while a judge has also ordered that four men be brought back.

Men and women repatriated from Syria could face charges, peace bonds: Leah West

women and children seen from behind walking along an rural looking road
The al-Roj detention camp in Syria is overcrowded, violent and still rife with a strong ISIS presence, said national security expert Leah West. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

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Canadians held in Syria — on suspicion of involvement with ISIS — could soon be repatriated, prompting questions about security, accountability and reintegration.

But national security expert Leah West said this kind of return isn't unprecedented, pointing to reports that 60 people suspected of extremist activities abroad had returned to Canada by 2018.

"We've not seen any of those individuals engage in terrorist activity that led to violence or charges since then," said West, an assistant professor of international affairs, national security law, counterterrorism and cyber operations at Carleton University. 

"There are ways to mitigate the threats. We have fantastic security personnel who will be tasked with that upon their return," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

On Thursday, the federal government agreed to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children from northeastern Syria, where they have been held in Kurdish-run detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families. 

WATCH | Ottawa to repatriate 19 women and children held in Syria, lawyer says: 

Ottawa to repatriate 19 women and children held in Syria, lawyer says

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
The federal government has agreed to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children held in Syrian detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families.

That agreement was quickly followed a day later by an order from the Federal Court, instructing the government to also repatriate four men, currently held in Syrian prisons, accused of ISIS membership.

The men are accused of joining and performing various roles for ISIS, but the court ruling noted that the men have never been tried or convicted, and their detention abroad conflicted with their charter rights to enter and remain in Canada. 

Global Affairs Canada said it will review the decision regarding the four men.

"The safety and security of Canadians is our government's top priority. We remain committed to taking a robust approach to this issue," it said in a statement Saturday.

Ultimately, West believes that the federal government "will take steps to bring them home," and pointed to other recent repatriations that might offer clues to what happens next.

National security expert Leah West said that if those detained in Syria did commit acts of terror on behalf of terrorists, they should stand trial in Canada. (Submitted by Leah West)

Oumaima Chouay was charged with terrorism offences when she returned to Canada in October, and underwent a bail hearing "in which there were serious conditions placed on her ability to leave custody," West said. 

In the same repatriation, Kimberly Polman was arrested and released on bail, pending a terrorism peace bond hearing. A peace bond is a court order placing an individual under strict conditions, designed to keep them from committing or recommitting crimes. Violating the terms of the bond can result in imprisonment. 

"I suspect that that's what we'll see, a combination — depending on who these individuals are — of either a peace bond, or charges and then bail conditions for those who are charged," West said.

Leaving them in Syria 'is not justice'

In the court decision about the four men, the judge noted the court was not asked to rule on why the applicants went to the region, and that the government had not submitted evidence that any of the four took part in terrorist activities. 

Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represented some of the applicants, said his clients should be brought home — at which point Canada could pursue criminal prosecution if there is evidence to support it.

"These are Canadian citizens, they are being unlawfully, arbitrarily detained in either detention camps or in prisons, they haven't been charged with anything," Greenspon told CBC News.

WATCH | Inside an ISIS detention camp in Syria: 

Inside an ISIS detention camp in Syria

2 years ago
Duration 2:39
CBC News gets an inside look of a detention camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria that's home to tens of thousands of people and where ISIS sleeper cells control much of what happens. But many of those inside simply just want to go home.

On Thursday, former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski said he doubts any of the adults returning would face justice for any crimes they may have committed.

"The witnesses aren't here; the evidence isn't here," he told CBC News. "As a Canadian citizen, I'm outraged that people are going to get away with it."

He added that monitoring the individuals would result in extra expense and pressure on Canada's intelligence bodies. 

But West said that it's the right decision to repatriate them from the Syrian camps, which she has visited and described as overcrowded, violent and still hosting "a strong ISIS presence."

"If these people did commit acts of terror on behalf of terrorists, they deserve to stand trial, they deserve to be found guilty … for their victims to see that happen and for Canada to uphold the rule of law," she said.

"Leaving them abroad where they're being detained in inhumane conditions without charge, without trial, is not justice."

With files from CBC Politics. Audio produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Howard Goldenthal and Najib Asil

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