The Current

Canada in political bind over whether to bring alleged ISIS fighters, like 'Jihadi Jack,' home, experts say

The case of Jack Letts, a young British-Canadian man dubbed "Jihadi Jack" by British media, has sparked a contentious debate about the Canadian government's role and responsibilities when a citizen is accused of terrorism, according to counter-terrorism experts.

Government will likely tread lightly over politically fraught topic, says former CSIS strategic analyst

Jack Letts, as seen in a Facebook photo at age 20, went to Iraq and Syria in 2014, and is now in a Kurdish jail in northern Syria. He was dubbed 'Jihadi Jack' in British media, a label his parents feel has hurt his case. (Facebook)

The case of Jack Letts, a young British-Canadian man dubbed "Jihadi Jack" by British media, has sparked a contentious debate about the Canadian government's role and responsibilities when a citizen is accused of terrorism, according to counter-terrorism experts.

Letts is one of several Canadians being held by Kurdish authorities in Syria following the collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2017. Letts, a Muslim convert, grew up in Oxford and went to Iraq and Syria in 2014.

As CBC News first reported in February the Canadian government has been trying to negotiate his release.

The Trudeau government will likely tread very lightly over such a politically fraught topic, according to former CSIS strategic analyst Phil Gurski.

"We have a government that has been burned very badly recently, with respect to terrorism cases. Omar Khadr did not go over well with the Canadian public. Joshua Boyle did not go over well with the Canadian public," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"You have a government, I think, that's a little bit leery of making these efforts to bring these people back, irrespective of their obligations under the Charter or under Canadian law."

Sally Lane and John Letts, parents of Jack Letts, arrive at the Old Bailey court in central London on Jan.12, 2017. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

John Letts rebukes Scheer comments

John Letts, Jack's Canadian-born father, reiterated that to his knowledge, his son has never been charged with terrorism, despite accusations he became affiliated with ISIS.

"Even Global Affairs Canada has told us that as far as they're aware, he's never been charged. He's certainly not been charged in Britain. In fact, the police here have consistently said, 'We just want to talk to him," he said.

Last week, he accused Andrew Scheer of lying about his son after the Conservative leader characterized the younger Letts as "British terrorist Jihadi Jack" in question period.

Scheer on Jihadi Jack and his dad

4 years ago
Duration 1:40
Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer responds to John Letts

"There's no evidence for that. I'd love for him to produce it, and if he does have any evidence, I think he should hand that to the security services," the elder Letts told Tremonti.

"As far as we're aware, and our lawyers are aware, there's absolutely no information about that."

When asked whether Global Affairs Canada is working to secure Letts's release, the department said: "Canadian diplomats have established a communications channel with local Kurdish authorities in order to verify the whereabouts and well-being of Canadian citizens."

It added that due to the security situation, "the government of Canada's ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited."

In February, CBC News obtained audio recordings and text transcripts of Jack Letts's conversations with Canadian consular officials, who stopped short of giving him any direct assurances they'll be able to free him.

Displaced men from Hawija stand facing a wall in order to prevent them from seeing security officers, who will try to determine if they were associated with the Islamic State militant group, at a Kurdish screening centre in Dibis, Iraq, on Oct. 3, 2017. (Bram Janssen/Associated Press)

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale declined an interview with The Current, but his office said in a statement that "reports of an agreement concerning the repatriation of Canadian citizens from Syria are false." The office did not provide further details, citing privacy and security reasons.

'Absolute right' to return to Canada

Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo sociology professor and director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, said that as the son of a Canadian-born citizen, Letts has "an absolute right" to return to Canada.

"There's almost nothing the government can do about that," he said.

Dawson added that due to the lack of clear information about Letts's situation, it might be a good idea "to get him out of there, so that a proper investigation can happen."

Gurski suspects that CSIS and its international partners are likely to be "actively gathering evidence and more intelligence" to build a strong case that would determine whether Letts indeed joined or fought with ISIS.

Dawson noted that if Letts or any other Canadian detained overseas on accusations of terrorism are brought to stand trial in Canada, it will be difficult to gather enough strong evidence to convict them.

"A good defence lawyer would run roughshod over the case," he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC's Murray Brewster. Produced by Willow Smith.