The Current

Canadian women who went to join ISIS 'not willing to express regret': reporter

Several women who joined ISIS in the Middle East now want to return to their home countries — including Canada. But were they innocents who were pressured to join, or accomplices to the caliphate's atrocities?

Life under caliphate was 'normal,' women told Rukmini Callimachi

The conflict between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS militants has prompted civilizans to flee the front-line Syrian village of Baghuz, where the Canadian women (not pictured) said they were. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
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Two Canadian women who went to join ISIS in the Middle East have shown no remorse for doing so, according to a New York Times reporter in Syria, who says she spoke to them in recent days.

"They've described life under the Islamic State as being, quote, normal," said Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and host of the podcast Caliphate.

"They seemed to be intent on justifying some of the horrible practices that we know of, that the group carried out, and they were not willing to express regret for having travelled to the caliphate," she told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

The two women — believed to be from Ontario and Alberta — surrendered along with their children last week.

Callimachi said the sentiment is typical of the foreigner fighters she has been interviewing.

As U.S.-backed forces push ISIS out of their last remaining strongholds in Syria, as many as 5,000 alleged combatants and their families are being held in makeshift prisons.

CBC News has determined that as many as 32 Canadians are currently being held.

The U.S. is pulling troops out of Syria, and has called on its allies to repatriate alleged combatants. But Canada's Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale rejected the idea, saying he isn't willing to risk the safety of Canadian officials and diplomats in order to bring those fighters home.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale rejected U.S. calls to repatriate Canadians who went to join ISIS. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

ISIS brides 'involved in ... sex trafficking'

Callimachi pointed out that while the women of the caliphate may not have been active participants in "the beheadings, the assassinations, the crucifixions," they were involved in online recruitment, and bringing more women to ISIS from the West.

"One of the most disturbing aspects of what women did — ISIS wives — is they were involved in the Yazidi sex trafficking," she said.

"These are the women from the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, who were abducted by the Islamic state, and were forced into a system of sexual slavery."

Ultimately, it was the women and the children who joined ISIS that gave the group enormous legitimacy, she said.

"It became a state rather than just a terrorist organization that was interested in killing people."

The Yazidis fled their homes and villages when ISIS began their incursion in August 2014. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Unlikely that 'women would face charges in Canada'

Finding sufficient evidence to convict women who return to Canada could prove difficult, said Jessica Davis, a former senior intelligence analyst at CSIS, and author of Women in Modern Terrorism.

"I don't think that a lot of these women would face charges in Canada, but that doesn't mean that they would be free to go about ... their lives," she told Chattopadhyay.

"There may be some other measures that could be applied like peace bonds," she added.

Some of those who return will "realize that they made a mistake," and "would likely not pose a threat, would move on with their lives, would abandon the ideology," she said. 

"But that's not a sure thing with all of them."

Rukmini Callimachi is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and host of the podcast 'Caliphate.' (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler, Samira Mohyeddin and Imogen Birchard.