Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale refused to provide details today on the status of a Canadian former ISIS fighter who has confessed to an execution-style killing in Syria and is now home living in Toronto, saying police and security officials are taking all necessary steps to “keep Canadians safe.”
Goodale fielded questions from the Conservatives in the House of Commons about the former ISIS member, who goes by the jihadi nom de guerre Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi (Abu Huzaifa the Canadian), after he gave a detailed account of firing a bullet into the back of a man’s head in a New York Times podcast.
CBC News has reported Abu Huzaifa was questioned extensively by RCMP and CSIS, but has not been charged.
In a New York Times audio series called “Caliphate,” Abu Huzaifa confesses to taking part in the communal, execution-style killing of Sunni Muslim men. The middle-aged men — blindfolded and with their arms tied — were killed because they had offered resistance to ISIS, he said.
“At first you have to bring yourself to do it. You say, ‘OK I’m finally killing someone now.’ This is maybe the next step to being a front-line fighter, and I already had some goals of being a front-line fighter.”
Before firing the fatal shot into the back of the man’s head, Abu Huzaifa said he told himself it was justified — that “you can do it and you won’t be held accountable.
“You kind of have to close your eyes and do it. You just shoot.”
‘Canadians deserve more answers’
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen demanded to know what the Liberal government and the authorities are doing about Abu Huzaifa and other ISIS fighters who have returned to Canada.
“This guy is apparently in Toronto. Canadians deserve more answers from this government. Why aren’t they doing something about this despicable animal that’s walking around the country?” she said.
CSIS has estimated about 60 Canadians have returned home after fighting with foreign terror groups.
Goodale said Canadians can be “very assured” that CSIS, the RCMP and other security and police agencies are doing their job.
“The security agencies and police agencies of the government of Canada are making sure that they know all of the facts that they need to know. And that they are taking all of the measures that are necessary to keep Canadians safe,” he said.
“The last thing that would ensure the safety of Canadians is to have a play-by-play commentary on security operations on the floor of the House of Commons.”
Detailed account of killings
In the New York Times podcast, Abu Huzaifa said after the mass execution he tried to look only at the man’s feet — but “peeked.” The executioners then piled up the row of dead bodies.
Abu Huzaifa recounted how he could not get the smell of blood off his hands and felt sick for the rest of the day.
He also described how ISIS conducts training — using mannequins to teach recruits to stab and shoot — and the tactics used to desensitize them to violence.
Abu Huzaifa describes growing up in a normal family of Pakistani immigrants who were Muslim but not “particularly religious.” He details how he was drawn in through online chat groups and recruited because he “always wanted something bigger, not something simple or boring.”
Asked when he decided to leave, he said: “The second time I killed someone.”
Last year, Abu Huzaifa told CBC News he left Toronto in 2014 to join the extremist group when he was 17 going on 18.
Five months after serving as an ISIS enforcer in the Syrian city of Manbij, Abu Huzaifa said, he realized it wasn’t what he had signed up for and decided to flee for home.
He told CBC he had witnessed violence on a scale he never could have imagined — including public lashings, beheadings and crucifixions — but said at the time he had never harmed anyone.
He would only agree to speak to the CBC on the condition that his real name and identity not be revealed. Afraid for his life, he said he suffered from nightmares and was waking up in a cold sweat at least three times a week.
Speaking after the daily question period, Bergen said the government must send a strong message that it will hold ISIS fighters to account instead of welcoming them home to Canada without consequences.
She said Abu Huzaifa should be in jail rather than walking free, noting that it is a crime to leave Canada for the purpose of engaging in terrorist activity.
“He should be arrested today. He should not be in the streets of Toronto. If he can be speaking to the media, he can then be identified by the government, by the police, and he can be arrested,” she said.
“How can anybody tell these kinds of things, talk about these kinds of things, and the government just shrugs its shoulders and says no, we can’t do anything about it?”
‘Enormously difficult’ investigations
Former CSIS director Ward Elcock said a confession on a podcast is not enough for police to lay a charge; they still have to conduct a thorough investigation to establish that a crime was actually committed, and to gather evidence to prove the person who confessed actually did it.
And when the crime in question is a homicide alleged to have taken place years ago in Syria, he said, it can be “enormously difficult” to build a case.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy,” he said.
Elcock said it’s possible police already have an investigation open on Abu Huzaifa, and he may be under surveillance if authorities believe he is a security risk.
“At the end of the day, the question is, is he a threat or not? The service will be trying to identify that,” he said.
“If there’s a law enforcement investigation, at some point they might announce he’s being charged. If they don’t have enough evidence, they won’t.”
Elcock said he can’t explain Abu Huzaifa’s motivation for speaking out now, adding some people confess to crimes they didn’t commit — and even come to believe they did commit them.
For its part, the RCMP won’t say if they’re investigating Abu Huzaifa.
“Generally, only in the event that an investigation results in the laying of criminal charges would the RCMP confirm its investigation, the nature of any charges laid and the identity of the individual(s) involved,” said spokeswoman Sgt. Tania Vaughan.