Independent agency investigates CSIS after allegation that agent smuggled teenage girls into Syria

An independent government agency is investigating how Canada’s espionage agency handles human resources after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in August to follow up on claims that an ISIS member, who also worked as a CSIS operative, had smuggled three British teenagers into Syria in 2015.

The three teenagers – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16 – left East London for Syria in 2015. Sultana and Abase would be dead. Begum is in a detention camp in northeastern Syria.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) has confirmed that it has agreed to review the matter in response to a written request in September from Secretary of Public Security Marco Mendicino.

NSIRA said the review examines how the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) handles “human source operations” and “follows on previous … investigations related to how risk is managed and the minister is informed.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau had asked Mendicino to look into the matter. Trudeau had been questioned about claims published in British author Richard Kerbaj’s book The Secret History of the Five Eyes.

The book claims that Syrian-born Mohammed al-Rashed worked for ISIS and wanted to start a new life in Canada, so he applied for political asylum in Canada. CSIS learned about al-Rashed from the embassy in Turkey and enlisted him as an intelligence asset for CSIS, the book said.

The trio of teenage girls from London went missing in 2015 and a manhunt was underway to find them. British authorities later learned that the teens had been flown to Turkey and then smuggled into Syria by al-Rashed to join ISIS, the book said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in August that “the fight against terrorism requires our intelligence services to remain flexible and creative in their approach.” (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The book also said that it was only after CSIS learned that al-Rashed had been arrested in Turkey — and the case would become public as a result — that two CSIS operatives traveled to London to reveal the agency’s involvement in the case to local police. who examines the teenagers. disappearance.

Kerbaj’s book claims the meeting was for “self-interest” and that CSIS “hoped the police investigation would not force CSIS to be questioned or held accountable.”

When asked about the allegations, CSIS told CBC News in a statement that it cannot comment on “investigations, methodologies or activities to maintain operations and protect the safety and security of Canadians.”

CSIS said it is “committed to protecting Canada’s security in an ethical and transparent manner,” and that all activities must comply with Canadian law.

Mendicino’s office said it requested the review to examine CSIS’s risk assessment process to ensure the agency follows the law and “upholds the values ​​that Canadians expect,” according to his office.

Begum tries to regain British citizenship

The review comes as Begum’s appeal against former UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke her citizenship is set for hearings in Britain this week, exposing CSIS’s alleged involvement in the case. is put in the spotlight.

CBC News attended the hearing as Begum’s legal team argued that the UK has failed to investigate whether authorities have done enough to prevent the 15-year-old minor from being trafficked to Syria for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

As a minor, Begum was married to an ISIS fighter and, according to media reports, had three children who died young.

Her legal team said in its written argument that an investigation should have looked into whether sufficient steps had been taken by “UK authorities to liaise with the intelligence/security services of UK allies operating in Turkey (including Canada and their agent Mohammed al-Rashed).”

An MI5 agent testified behind a curtain to conceal his identity and told the court that Begum, now 23, was an intelligent high school student who “knew what she was doing” when she traveled to Syria in 2015 to join ISIS close and did not. regret or regret during media interviews in 2019.

MI5 argues that Begum poses a national security risk.

Begum made headlines worldwide when she left the UK at the age of 15 with her two teenage friends to join ISIS. Four years later, after losing three children to disease and malnutrition, she surrendered to coalition forces and is now being held in a detention camp in northern Syria. (Alba Sotorra/Sky documentaries)

Maya Foa is the Executive Director of London-based Reprieve, a non-profit organization of international human rights lawyers and researchers. She said Canadian and British authorities abandoned the teens who were recruited online and smuggled through a network of people.

“This is classic human trafficking, grooming, and we failed,” Foa said. “The British authorities failed and the Canadian authorities involved through the double agent failed. This is a 15-year-old.”

Foa said she has been traveling to northeastern Syria for three years to interview women and families in detention camps. Last month, she met Begum again, she said.

“I know from my conversations with Shamima Begum that she wishes her school and others had behaved differently around that time,” she said.

According to written arguments from her legal team, one of Begum’s school friends had already traveled to Syria before Begum left the country. Police spoke to Begum at the school and gave her a letter to share with her parents, the document said.

But that letter was never delivered and the police did not inform Begum’s parents that their daughter is at risk of radicalization, argues Begum’s legal team.

‘The money stops with trafficking in minors’

Former senior CSIS intelligence officer Huda Mukbil calls CSIS’s alleged handling of Begum’s case “shameful”.

The Globe and Mail has reported that al-Rashed has broken a CSIS rule that prohibits paid agents from engaging in illegal activities, including human trafficking. Steven Blaney, the Conservative minister of public safety at the time, was unaware of and did not approve of the operation, the Globe and Mail reported.

CSIS learned of the teens’ whereabouts four days after they crossed the Turkish border and notified British intelligence within 48 hours, the Globe and Mail reported.

“The responsibility lies with the trafficking of minors,” said Mukbil, who worked for CSIS for 15 years, including a stint as a CSIS agent in the UK from 2005 to 2006, and is now a security consultant. “From the moment the source knew they were minors, he had every obligation to ensure that they were not smuggled into that area.”

CCTV footage released by the Metropolitan Police in London shows Abase, left, Sultana, centre, and Begum catching a flight to Turkey via Gatwick Airport on 17 February 2015. (Metropolitan police/the associated press)

She is now calling on the UK to restore Begum’s citizenship and said Canada should launch a public inquiry into CSIS’s handling of the case.

“We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Mukbil, who left CSIS in 2017, was part of a discrimination case against the agency and contested the last federal election for the NDP.

Surveillance regime not in place at time of allegations

Joshua Baker, an investigative journalist with the BBC, has traveled to the detention camp several times to speak directly to Begum for his podcast I’m not a monster.

Baker said Begum told him she had no idea the man who smuggled her from Turkey to Syria in 2015 was an asset to Canadian intelligence and that without him she would have had trouble getting into Syria.

“But what she has said is that she feels it would have been impossible for her, and others like her, to reach Syria without the help of smugglers like Mohammed al-Rashed,” he said.

Baker said he obtained documents showing al-Rashed was part of a network that moved men, women and children into Syria for ISIS long before Begum left the UK. Two CSIS handlers at the embassy in Jordan dealt with al- Rashed, but it’s “difficult to know” whether CSIS knew he would be transporting the teenage girls to Syria, Baker said.

The Prime Minister’s Office told CBC News on Tuesday that “CSIS must abide by Canadian law and be subject to strict scrutiny by regulatory agencies.” But the PMO also said that “any activity that took place before 2017 would not have benefited from this oversight regime.”

That year, about two years after Begum traveled to Syria, the government enacted the National Security Act, which led to the introduction of an intelligence commissioner to oversee the spy agency’s sensitive activities, Mendicino’s office said.

Al-Rashed was arrested and jailed in Turkey in 2015 for smuggling and terrorism. He was released from a Turkish prison in August, sources told Globe and Mail and Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

CBC News asked Mendicino’s office whether al-Rashed is in Canada and whether the minister has signed a request for political asylum. Mendicino’s office said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on specific cases.”

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