In the last decade, tens of thousands of foreign fighters have left the confines of their home country to fight for ISIS. In March 2019, the U.S. declared the Islamic State defeated as its territory dwindled to a fraction of its former size. This marked a sharp increase in the number of foreign fighters in detention in the area by groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a part of the anti-ISIS coalition led mostly by the U.S. backed Kurdish militia known as the YPG.
An estimated 2000 foreign fighters are detained in SDF camps in northeastern Syria, hailing from Germany, France, the U.S., and Belgium, among others. This brings us to a problem that many governments have been trying to avoid – what to do with the citizens who have left to fight for ISIS, even if evidence is hard to obtain.
This is where the story of Canadian citizen, Jack Letts, comes into play.
Who is “Jihadi Jack” and Why is He Canada’s Problem?
Jack Letts, or as he’s known in the British tabloids, “Jihadi Jack”, left school in the UK to travel to Syria in 2014. While he has denied killing anyone or owning slaves while being in ISIS-controlled territory, it is alleged that he ran off to join ISIS in Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the IS. In 2017, while trying to flee to Turkey, he was captured by YPG forces in northeastern Syria, where he has been held ever since. Mr. Letts has never been formally charged with any terrorism-related offences.
Jack Letts is a dual British-Canadian citizen – at least he was, until mid-August when Theresa May’s government revoked his citizenship in its final days, leaving him solely with Canadian citizenship. Mr. Letts was born and raised in the UK, but has visited Canada seven times, and his father is Ontario-born. As the UK attempts to wash its hands clean of its responsibilities regarding Mr. Letts’ alleged jihadist past, the Canadian Government is left to decide what is to become of him.
While Mr. Letts has told reporters he hopes to return to Canada and that most of his family lives in Canada anyways, it was as recently as February that he said he identifies more with Britain than anywhere else.
The unilateral revocation from the UK prompted a retort from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who stated that Canada was “disappointed” with this “unilateral action to offload (the UK’s) responsibilities.” Goodale emphasises, however, this is not necessarily something that would start a UK-CAN diplomatic row or any tit-for-tat retaliation.
The UK’s decision is especially disappointing because, according to experts, Mr. Letts cannot be charged with “traveling from Canada to commit an offence for a terrorist organization,” or of “traveling from Canada to facilitate terrorist activity” under Canadian domestic law. Mr. Letts did not travel from Canada – he travelled from the UK. It is much easier, evidence-wise, to charge an individual under the aforementioned charges, as opposed to what the Canadian Government might have to resort to if Mr. Letts is ever to be repatriated – charging him with the actual crimes he may or may not have committed in Syria. To find the evidence of such is difficult, to say the least.
The move by the UK, while disappointing, is not incredibly surprising – the UK has generally not repatriated any of its citizens from ISIS territory. Just earlier this year, the UK made headlines when it revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a woman who left to join ISIS when she was fifteen – her newborn son died in a refugee camp just a few weeks after the revocation.
Goodale has firmly asserted that Canada has “no legal obligation” to repatriate its citizens detained in Syria, and that he will not expose consular officials to such danger trying to secure Mr. Letts’ release.
A Problem No Wants to Solve:
It is a dilemma that everyone would prefer not to deal with, as all possible solutions possess unsavoury elements. In June, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions conducted an interview where she asserted Canada does, in fact, have a legal obligation to repatriate its citizens in Syria accused of terrorism-related charges.
The Syrian Democratic Forces is a non-state actor, and thus has no jurisdiction to try the accused. Accordingly, there are a few possible options to deal with the issue. First, the alleged fighters could be handed over (forcefully or voluntarily) to a local government (Iraq or Syria – both of which might involve the death penalty). Secondly, the fighters might accidentally be set free during a conflict. Finally, the governments could also repatriate their citizens back.
In other words, the status quo of repatriating citizens on an ad hoc basis (if at all), is time-limited – the SDF has tens of thousands of these persons and their families in camps where conditions are not ideal.
This last option could involve a lengthy but not impossible rescue operation, followed by possible prosecution if not release and surveillance. But as mentioned before, no elected government wants to be branded by the opposition as weak on national security, especially not in the lead-up to an election. In the case of Canada, in a seeming contradiction to the Liberals’ previous election-time mantra of “a Canadian is a Canadian,” Goodale said they were under no legal obligation to repatriate Mr. Letts. Perhaps this was a way to avoid accusations around this topic from the debacles surrounding Omar Khadr’s settlement or when a free Canadian ex-ISIS fighter admitted to some of his crimes on a New York Times podcast. Only the NDP is along the same thought path as the UN Special Rapporteur.
Various countries have, to different degrees, repatriated some of their citizens (mostly women and children) from abroad – including Australia, Belgium, and the U.S., to name just a few. In the American case, six of the eight US adults repatriated have had charges laid against them. Goodale had also previously stated four Canadian returnees (i.e., not necessarily those repatriated by the government) have been convicted for terrorism-related offences since 2015.
This novel dilemma arises from the changing nature of war in our current time period – where citizens from dozens of countries left to join a non-state actor, and are currently being held by another. Canada’s laws have not entirely been updated to deal with this new reality, but they can be – as Australia has shown with changes to its laws. Australia now has certain designated zones (ex. Syria) where the onus is on the citizen to prove their visit was one of an innocent nature.
In explaining the individual dilemma of Jack Letts, the difficulty of what to do with hundreds of similar cases to his is stressed further. At the end of the day, such repatriation operations will require extensive international cooperation, as the current status quo of allowing alleged ISIS fighters to remain with the YPG is unsustainable in the long-run.
Edited by Jillian Giberson.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image by Mahmoud Bali (VOA) via Wikipedia Commons