Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Nasser Haidar Society, Culture, and Security Women in Security

The Case Of The Returning Jihadi: A Talk by Rukmini Callimachi, Janice Stein and Amarnath Amarsingam


A peculiar thing about those that choose a life of extremism, is that despite all their flair for violence, they are extraordinarily ordinary. They are people, just like us, and they have a deeply articulated cause that they think is worthy of death. Amarnath Amarsingam wonders why we’re asking the wrong questions when it comes to extremism of all forms, and why do these men and women see violence as not only just obligatory but necessary too?

These are a diverse group of people leaving for a diverse group of reasons. A common theme with those that have left to fight for extremist causes abroad, is that they consider themselves to be a part of the “other”; a group of people that have never felt like they fit in – but that’s a common sentiment – so what makes this particular group of people actually join groups like ISIS? In short, and in the agreement of all three of the panellists, it is that it all comes back to the groups messaging, their recruitment, their access to vulnerable youth and their ability to draw support. A story shared by Ms. Callimachi was that of a young woman in Washington state who was approached by an ISIS recruiter via twitter, and they eventually began to converse up to 8 to 9 hours a day. Their key strength was their ability to eroticize violence. In the words of an ISIS returnee: “say what you want about ISIS, at least they never lied to you”.

As the panellists shared stories of individuals they’ve interviewed, a common response started to emerge from the returnees. How do you explain to god in the afterlife that you paid taxes to a country that bombs your country? Mr. Amarsingam suggests that these individuals fuse their interests and their personal story with the larger cause and the movement they identify with, believing that they are more so revolutionary rather than nihilistic.


Threat level

So just how big is the threat level? The media makes it seem like ISIS is knocking on our doorstep, as well as that of our NATO allies in Europe, and although that may be true, and even more so in Europe’s case, for Canada, the numbers are a little different. Roughly 180 people from Canada have gone to join an extremist cause throughout the last 30 years, 100 of which went to Iraq and Syria to join a myriad of different groups. Roughly 60 have returned to Canada, according to the Panellists and the Ministry of Public Safety.

Overall, jihadism is not a very big threat in Canada. Prevention efforts are important, but so is perspective. There would be no point in worrying about the threat of imported Islamist extremism if the far right within Canada is to be ignored, an objectively much larger threat to Canada and its way of life, according to Janice Stein. The real problem here though is underfunding & understaffing within the intelligence agencies.

On average, it takes 15-16 agents, operating in two teams, to follow one returnee. In addition to that, the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS) cannot follow an individual for longer than is legally mandated. This is a desperately urgent crisis within Canada’s institutions and forces the large portion of the intelligence services’ manpower to be focused on jihadist returnees, overlooking the full scale of other threats.


Ethical journalism

One of the biggest concerns of a journalist, especially whilst in the midst of the tricky business of interviewing violent extremist jihadists, is to be ethical. Ms. Callimachi’s own efforts – highlighted throughout her newest podcast, The Caliphate – attempts to humanize and understand the reasons a jihadist fighter like her subject “Abu Huzaifa” would have in leaving western countries like Canada to join ISIS.

The task not easy, as she and other journalists, walk a fine line between journalism and legitimizing Abu Huzaifa, doing their best to not give them a platform for their ideology. A journalistic investigation should be different to a law enforcement investigation, such as those conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and by intelligence agencies such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS), which could work in coordination but have different legal mandates for prosecutions and arrests. RCMP having such a prerogative, whilst CSIS is merely focused on intelligence collection that could be passed on to the RCMP.



Janice Stein said it best: what is a crime? And in these cases, how do you prove a crime?

It is not illegal to simply go to Iraq or Syria. Canada’s laws do not allow for prosecution for crimes not committed within Canada’s jurisdiction, with the exceptions of terrorism and crimes against humanity, for which, the burden of proof is considerably high. For a medical professional, their main goal is to do no harm. For legal and intelligence professionals, it would be better to let a guilty person walk free than to lock up an innocent person. Only two people have been charged with terrorism upon their return to Canada, and even after Prime Minister Trudeau referred to the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017 as an act of terrorism, the shooter was then only charged with 6 charges of first-degree murder and 6 charges of attempted murder.



It is difficult to imagine that all those living under ISIS’ rule throughout Syria and Iraq, numbering in the millions, including in the big cities of Raqqa and Mosul, were all extremists. It’s more plausible to think that there were a large percentage of people who simply accepted their realities due to fear or possible disenchantment with their corrupt governments.

A remarkable thing about ISIS is that the streets of Mosul actually got cleaner during their rule, and trash collection services improved, as Rukmini’s interviews with local residents showed. It was the same trash collectors with the same structure, but what changed? Well, for one, they were threatened with death if they didn’t reach their trash quotas per day. But the effect that created amongst the locals is noteworthy. Incredibly corrupt governments throughout the region fail to give even the most basic services to their citizens, and especially those below the poverty line. If it starts to make sense that they would then accept other forms of governance or other groups to govern them, then you wouldn’t be wrong. As a group, they were very organized.


A government caught off-guard

As we grapple with the phenomenon of extremism that plagues our times, it is not only necessary to analyze and understand their ideologies, their forms of governance and how we deal with them once they’ve returned. Perhaps one of the most pertinent, and also under-asked questions is, what role do we play in helping create them?

Whereas all forms of government policy are open to civil society influences, this is much less so when it comes to foreign policy. Due to the sensitivities of foreign relations, the demands of the other states more so than not outweigh the opinions and demands of local civil societies and those of the other nations. When adhering to interest-based foreign policy that eventually shows the double standards of implementing a policy in one place – such as intervening in Libya – but not being applied in another – such as not intervening in Syria -, governments end up unwittingly helping to create the kind of franchise terrorism that groups like ISIS depend on for their recruitment.

A foreign policy that takes the needs of the citizenry’s needs rather than the governments’ needs, in both directions, would ensure that as little people are disenfranchised as possible. Safeguarding and advocating for the inalienable civil and human rights of all individuals as a foreign policy priority would protect Canada and other countries as moral champions. Interest-based foreign policy, in contrast, deepens the “us vs. them” divide.

In regards to Canada’s foreign policy, and the policy outlook of our international partners, is it time to adhere to a different approach? In dealing with corrupt governments, we to an extent enable and legitimize their behaviour, often to the detriment of their own people, which then ends up inadvertently creating conditions that directly threaten us. So to what extent are we responsible?

There are no easy answers to these questions, or a proper way to discover the implications of them, but in light of the fiery debate that the podcast, “The Caliphate”, and its contents caused in the House of Commons, at the very least, Canada as a whole should be asking them.

Photo: A Conversation With NYT Foreign Correspondent Rukmini Callimachi On Her New Podcast “Caliphate” (2018). Courtesy of the author.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Nasser Haidar
Nasser Haidar is a Program Editor at the NATO Association of Canada. Nasser has recently graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honors BA in Political Economy and a double minor in Italian Communications & Environmental Studies, with an interest in geopolitics and especially Middle Eastern relations in Global Affairs, as well as the political economy of developing democracies. Nasser has previously worked for the National Human Rights Committee in Doha, Qatar. Since graduating, Nasser has taken on roles as a Senior Correspondent & Editor at the Organization of World Peace and continues to use his journalistic experience at the NATO Association of Canada to expand his relationship with the global political community.