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Independent agency probing CSIS after claim that operative smuggled teenage girls into Syria

An independent government agency is reviewing how Canada’s spy agency handles human sources after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in August to follow up on claims that an ISIS member who was also working as a CSIS operative smuggled three British teenagers into Syria in 2015.

The three teens — Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16 — left east London for Syria in 2015. Sultana and Abase are believed to be dead. Begum is at a detention camp in northeastern Syria. 

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

NSIRA said the review is looking into how the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) handles “human source operations” and is “following up on earlier … studies related to how risks are managed and the minister is informed.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau asked Mendicino to look into the matter. Trudeau had faced questions about claims published in U.K.-based writer Richard Kerbaj’s book The Secret History of the Five Eyes

The book claims Syrian-born Mohammed al-Rashed was working 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 brought him on 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. U.K. authorities later found out the teens flew to Turkey and were then smuggled by al-Rashed into Syria to join ISIS, the book said. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in August that the ‘fight against terrorism requires our intelligence services to continue to be flexible and to be creative in their approaches.’ (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The book also said it was only after CSIS learned al-Rashed had been arrested in Turkey — and the case would go public as a result — that two CSIS officers travelled to London to reveal the agency’s involvement in the case to local police investigating the teens’ disappearance.

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

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

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

Mendicino’s office said it asked for the review to probe CSIS’s risk assessment process to ensure the agency is following the law and “upholding the values Canadians expect,” according to his office.

Begum is trying to regain U.K. citizenship

The review is taking place as Begum’s appeal of former U.K. home secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke her citizenship plays out in hearings in Britain this week — putting the spotlight back on CSIS’s alleged involvement in the case.

CBC News attended the hearing when Begum’s legal team argued the U.K. has failed to investigate whether authorities did enough to prevent the minor from being trafficked to Syria when she was 15 years old for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Begum was married while a minor to an ISIS fighter and went on to have three children who died young, according to media reports.

Her legal team said in its written argument that an investigation should have looked at whether adequate steps were taken by “U.K. authorities to liaise with the intelligence/security services of the U.K.’s allies operating in Turkey (including Canada and their agent Mohammed al-Rashed).”

Testifying behind a curtain to conceal his identity, an MI5 agent told the court that Begum, now 23, was an intelligent student in high school who “knew what she was doing” when she travelled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015 and didn’t express regret or remorse during media interviews in 2019.

MI5 maintains that Begum poses a national security risk.

Begum made worldwide headlines when, at 15, she left the U.K. with her two teenage friends to join ISIS. Four years later, having lost three children to disease and malnutrition, she surrendered to the coalition forces and is now 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 association of international human rights lawyers and investigators. She said Canadian and U.K. authorities failed the teens who were recruited online and smuggled by a network of people.

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

Foa said she has been travelling to northeastern Syria for three years, interviewing women and families in detention camps. She met again with Begum last month, 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.

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

But that letter was never delivered, nor did police inform Begum’s parents that their daughter might be at risk of being radicalized, Begum’s legal team argues.

‘The buck stops at trafficking 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 broke a CSIS rule that bans paid agents from engaging in illegal activity, including human trafficking. Steven Blaney, the Conservative public safety minister at the time, wasn’t aware of the operation and did not approve it, the Globe and Mail reported. 

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

“The buck stops at trafficking minors,” said Mukbil, who worked for CSIS for 15 years, including a stint as a CSIS agent in the U.K. from 2005 to 2006, and is now a security consultant. “The moment that the source was aware these were minors … he had every obligation to ensure they are not trafficked into that territory.”

CCTV footage issued by the Metropolitan Police in London shows Abase, left, Sultana, center, and Begum going through Gatwick airport to catch a flight to Turkey on Feb 17, 2015. (Metropolitan Police/The Associated Press)

She’s now calling on the U.K. to reinstate Begum’s citizenship and said Canada must launch a public inquiry into CSIS’s handling of the case.

“We need to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” said Mukbil, who left CSIS in 2017, was part of a discrimination lawsuit against the agency and ran in the last federal election for the NDP.

Oversight regime not in place at time of allegations

Joshua Baker, an investigative journalist at the BBC, has travelled to the detention camp multiple times to speak directly with Begum for his podcast I’m Not a Monster.

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

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

Baker said he obtained documents that show al-Rashed was part of a network moving men, women and children to Syria for ISIS long before Begum left the U.K. Two CSIS handlers at the embassy in Jordan were dealing with al-Rashed, but it’s “difficult to know” if CSIS knew he was going to transport the teenage girls to Syria, said Baker.

The Prime Minister’s Office told CBC News on Tuesday that “CSIS must abide by Canadian law and is subject to rigorous review by oversight bodies.” But the PMO also said that “any activities that occurred prior to 2017 would not have benefited from this oversight regime.”

That year, roughly two years after Begum travelled to Syria, the government introduced 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 in Turkey in 2015 and jailed for smuggling and terrorism offences. He was released from a Turkish jail in August, sources told the Globe and Mail and Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

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

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