First, there’s the electronic bubbling sound of a Skype call dialing up a connection. Within seconds, the youthful face of a man claiming to be a fighter living in territory controlled by the Islamic extremist militant group, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) appears on the computer screen. Skyping from his phone, the man has an English accent, is dressed in battle fatigues and a toque. He goes by the online alias “Abu Antar”.
“Have you ever left the country?” he asks the Canadian female he’s Skyping with.
“I’ve never left the country, but I have flown before,” she offers.
The man on Skype believes he’s talking to a 15-year-old Canadian girl from Edmonton he met on Twitter only a few days earlier. He’s coaching her on how to travel to ISIS-controlled territory to become his wife.
LIVE CHAT: 16X9 investigates ‘Wives of ISIS’
First though, there are preparations that need to be made. “Abu Antar” instructs the girl to deceive her parents by telling them she’s going to a weekend sleepover. Then, he tells her to buy a plane ticket to Calgary, then Frankfurt, Germany and finally to Istanbul, Turkey. Once in Istanbul, the ISIS fighter tells her she’ll meet a middleman who will take her directly to the Turkish-Syrian border where he’ll be waiting on the other side.
The teen on the Skype call nods and agrees, but she is actually not a Canadian teen at all. She’s a 16×9 producer. 16×9 set up a test in hopes of finding out what young women and especially underage girls communicating online with ISIS recruiters are being told and how they’re being coached to make “hijrah” – or migration to the Islamic State.
“It’s very easy for a young girl in Canada to set up a Twitter account, gain this kind of access to fighters overseas and be in direct communication with them very quickly,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on foreign fighters, and postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University.
According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue – a think tank specializing in geo-strategic, social and security issues in London, UK – there are an estimated 550 western women living in ISIS-controlled territory. Amarasingam estimates that about 15 of those western women are Canadian. He tracks recruits online, mainly through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. He says, at first, he was mainly tracking male recruits, but then noticed a new demographic of recruits beginning to emerge.
“The numbers started to jump around the time in late 2013 once the Islamic State was kind of in its full bloom, and particularly in 2014 when the caliphate was established,” said Amarasingam.
Last October three Somali teen girls from Brampton, Ont. tried to make it to Syria to join ISIS. The 15, 16 and 18-year-old teens made it as far as Istanbul – a common rendezvous point for western recruits linking up with ISIS operatives tasked with getting new recruits over the border and into Syria, and the Islamic State.
“The parents realized they were missing, contacted CSIS and the RCMP,” said Hussein Hamdani, a lawyer who was called in by the RCMP as a liaison between the families and law enforcement. He said the RCMP alerted the Turkish authorities about the missing teens.
“They were able to track them on the plane to Istanbul,” said Hamdani. “When they got to the Istanbul airport, that’s where the Turkish authorities captured, arrested, returned, deported, them back to Canada and they’ve been here ever since.”
According to Hamdani, the Brampton teens and their families would not speak directly with 16×9, preferring to keep anonymous, and put the failed attempt to join ISIS behind them.
“You’re young and you’re stupid and you’re foolish and you make mistakes,” said Hamdani. “I think that these girls weren’t ideologues. They were just girls who made a mistake. And maybe fully didn’t appreciate the consequences of that mistake.”
Hamdani told 16×9 that the Brampton teens have not been charged, and the RCMP would not comment on the case.
It is not a crime to marry a terrorist in Canada, inasmuch as it isn’t a crime to marry a bank robber or anyone with a criminal history. It is, however, illegal to marry an underage girl or minor. In this instance, at least two of the Brampton girls heading overseas were minors. Under Canadian law luring an underage girl to travel overseas to marry an ISIS fighter, becomes a case of human trafficking.
“These young girls are being lured and trafficked, underage, to go into relationships that are completely inappropriate, and so it is human trafficking it is child exploitation,” said Hamdani.
A few months after the attack on parliament last October, the Canadian government proposed a new anti-terrorism bill, Bill C-51. The proposed legislation includes criminalizing the promotion of terrorism, enhancing powers of Canada’s spy agency, CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service), and providing the RCMP with new powers of preventative arrest. It means Canadian minors communicating online with members of ISIS, or posting pro-ISIS propaganda, could be subject to criminal charges if Bill C-51 is passed.
In a sit down interview with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney in February, 16×9 correspondent, Vassy Kapelos asked if the minister saw young girls recruited by ISIS as victims. According to Blaney, Canadian underage girls who are engaging online, and joining terrorist organizations such as ISIS, should be aware that if the proposals under Bill C-51 become law even teenage girls might not be viewed as innocent victims.
“When we are dealing with a criminal we have to change their behaviour,” said Blaney. “When we are dealing with a potential terrorist we have to change their beliefs.”
Kapelos asked Minister Blaney if it was hard to see a 13-year-old girl as a terrorist.
“Well, we need to be able to make sure that those beliefs won’t translate into action. Because if you commit (an act of) violence you are going against the Criminal Code,” he responded.
Hussein Hamdani says the Canadian government, and the proposals in Bill C-51, are missing the point and not getting to the heart of the problem of young Canadians radicalizing on their bedroom computers.
“The currency is greater to call it ‘terrorism’ and that ‘we’re being tough on crime’ or ‘we’re being tough on terror’ and ‘we’re going to you know treat these people as the animals that they are’”, said Hamdani. “There are no victims here and I think it’s just because it plays well to a constituency that wants to hear it.”
Hamdani said what’s needed is more intervention in the community, and working with young Canadians so they don’t fall into the trap of being recruited, radicalized and lured by ISIS militants eager to find new members on social media.
“We need to call it like it would be…human trafficking about child exploitation because that’s exactly what’s happening here. It may not be as politically sexy but it’s far more accurate a descriptor,” said Hamdani.