COMMENTARY: What should we do with Canada’s ISIS fighters?

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I should know better. I really should. I’m familiar with all the arguments against the idea. But I still can’t pretend that I really care what happens to Muhammed Ali, 28, formerly of Mississauga.

Ali, you see, left Canada in 2014 to join the Islamic State. Serving in a sniper unit (he claims as a spotter rather than a shooter, which is a distinction without much of a difference), he served ISIS for several years. While fighting with the jihadist terror group, he also kept up regular social media posts, boasting of ISIS’s campaigns, joking about playing soccer with the severed heads of captured Westerners, and calling on others to attack targets here at home. He said he’d “never felt more alive” than he did fighting for ISIS, and claimed he was no longer Canadian.

And then he got caught.

My Global News colleague Stewart Bell has had a long association, of a kind, with Ali. In 2014, while we both worked for the National Post, Bell was the first to publicly identify Ali, who had posted on social media under a variety of other names. Ali taunted Bell after American journalist James Foley was decapitated by ISIS, obviously implying that Bell would be next.

Nice guy, this Ali.

When they finally met, it was Bell who had the advantage. He and anti-terrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam had heard reports of a Canadian fighter being held by a Western-backed Syrian militia, and deduced that it was likely Ali, who had been assumed KIA when his social media posts had suddenly dried up. Bell and Amarasingam travelled to Syria and visited the prison where Ali, who was caught trying to flee into Turkey, is being held. His Canadian-born wife (another defector to ISIS, they met and married there) and their two young children are also being held nearby.

Ali spoke with Bell for hours. I won’t steal Stew’s thunder — do yourself a favour and read his incredible reporting here. But setting the terrific reporting aside, having found Ali, Canada now has a problem. What the hell do we do with him? With his wife? And their children?

Many people would argue he should be executed for his actions. That would certainly solve some of our problems. But as as emotionally satisfying (and simple) as that would be, there are genuinely compelling reasons to keep captured enemies like Ali alive. He could be a treasure trove of intelligence. If he could be flipped, he could be a useful propagandist, to be used against ISIS and other Islamist groups. Imprisoning him could also possibly serve as a deterrent against future would-be jihadists, who might choose to stay home and lie low rather than go abroad and fight.

There’s also a deeper reason: in any war, it’s critical that the enemy knows that they can surrender safely. If an enemy force believes we’re going to kill them anyway, they’re motivated to fight to the death. That imposes additional risks on nearby innocent civilians and our own forces and allied forces. We want the other side to give up without a fight. We hurt our own cause by blowing away those we capture.

The problem is, these are all uncertain. There’s no guarantee ISIL’s forces are particularly keen to surrender — that’s the problem with fighting religious fanatics. There’s no guarantee Ali knows much of anything beyond what he’s already told his jailers and interrogators from allied countries (Canadians have yet to speak with him, more on that in a minute). There’s no proof that he’d flip, or that he’d be convincing as a propagandist even if he did. And there’s no proof that he could even be arrested, let alone convicted, if returned to Canadian custody.

There’s probably enough evidence to convict him. Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and a man who’s forgotten more about these nitty-gritty national security issues than I’ll ever know, recently noted on Twitter that there are many Canadians already serving time for terrorism offences after even more difficult to prove cases. And he also noted, again on Twitter, that this case would make “an ideal test case” for our terrorism laws.

That … that doesn’t reassure me. And Canadian officials don’t seem that confident, either. They’re not convinced they could even arrest Ali with the available evidence, let alone convict. That’s apparently why they’re refusing to get involved, much to the frustration of the local officials, who’ve captured 900 foreign-born ISIS fighters (and even more dependents) they now need to figure out what the hell to do with.

So, sure the above arguments are valid. But listening to the audio of Bell’s long talk with Ali, one particular segment jumped out at me. He’s talking about how he became disenchanted with ISIS, and he notes that he was upset when ISIS ordered a Yazidi village to surrender, promising them they’d be spared if they did, and then proceeded to kill the men and rape the women anyway. Ali is bothered by the dishonesty.

He doesn’t seem particularly bothered, though, by the raping and the killing itself. Indeed, he says of the women — he describes them as “spoils of war” — that those kinds of mass rapes and enslavements are just what’s been going on for thousands of years.

True enough, unfortunately. But it’s been going on for thousands of years precisely because men like Ali viewed those horrified, helpless Yazidi women and girls not as human beings, but as, well, spoils of war. Playthings. A bit of fun after a hard day’s work.

So yeah, maybe Ali would be useful for intelligence, or as a test case for our laws. And figuring out what to do with his wife and kids is still a problem. I get that.

But I also just can’t muster up much sympathy for someone who had a chance to live an ordinary Canadian life and instead headed overseas to join with the ISIS barbarians as they raped and murdered their way across two countries, having a merry ole time — remember, he’d never felt more alive — as they did so. If Canada can’t or won’t take him back because we’re not confident we can lock this guy up forever, we should tell that to his captors, and also wash our hands of him. Not our problem anymore, and no questions raised by us whatever the locals decide to do with him.

Again, it’s inelegant. I wish I had a better answer. But I don’t, and none of us seem to. So I’m left with my head arguing with my heart, and my heart is winning. I should know better — I do know better. But still.

Ali didn’t just renounce his Canadian life, he renounced his humanity. Whatever comes to him, I won’t shed any tears. He wouldn’t shed any for me.

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