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A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces removes an Islamic State flag in the town of Tabqa in 2017. Canada has brought home two women who travelled to Syria to join up with Islamic State fighters.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP / Getty Images

Federal authorities have brought home two women who travelled to Syria to join up with Islamic State fighters, immediately charging one with terrorism offences while obtaining a peace bond allowing for monitoring of the other.

The two women, Oumaima Chouay and Kimberly Polman, were among a much larger group of Canadians who have been detained in camps in northeastern Syria since Kurdish forces helped defeat the Islamic State.

More than 20 detained women and children, plus a handful of men, have filed a case in Federal Court, set to be heard in early December, challenging the government’s refusal to bring them home.

The government’s focus, at least for now, appears to be on those suffering from severe illness. This is in accordance with a policy created by Global Affairs Canada in January, 2021. Ms. Polman, for instance, has been suffering from hepatitis and failing kidneys, according to her sister, who recently described her to The Canadian Press as a troubled woman who met an ISIS fighter online, married him and separated from him before being imprisoned.

She was to be taken before a Justice of the Peace in Abbotsford, B.C., to sign a peace bond, which would allow her release on certain conditions, her lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said Wednesday morning.

Ms. Chouay, who returned to Canada with two children born overseas, was arrested Tuesday night at a Montreal airport. She faces charges of leaving Canada to participate in terrorist group activity, participating in such activity, conspiracy and providing services for terrorist purposes. Leaving or attempting to leave Canada to join with terrorists has been an offence since 2013. The RCMP said she has been under investigation since 2014, and detained in Syria since 2017.

“It’s important that people who travel for the purpose of supporting terrorism face consequences,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Wednesday. He declined to say if more Canadians will be brought back, adding only that “we continue to engage responsibly in the region, monitor closely. We have a framework around doing this.”

Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Anabel Lindblad stressed public safety in a statement about the return of the women and the two children.

“The safety and security of Canadians, both at home and abroad, is a top priority of the Government of Canada. Canada conducted the operation on that basis and ensured the health and well-being of the 4 Canadians,” Ms. Lindblad wrote.

She thanked the United States for assisting with bringing back the Canadians, and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria for its co-operation and “its efforts in providing care for the detained individuals under an extremely difficult security situation and adverse circumstances.”

Mr. Greenspon, who is also involved in the upcoming Federal Court review of the plight of the Canadians who remain in Syria, said these four repatriations show that the larger group could be brought home. “If there’s evidence that they’ve done crimes elsewhere, then we have the means to prosecute them,” he said.

In all, close to 90 Canadians went to join the Islamic State, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor of religion and political science at Queen’s University in Kingston who researches terrorism and extremism.

Most were killed or have disappeared. Prof. Amarasingam said he conducted interviews with Canadians and others who joined up with the Islamic State to understand why they had done so.

“It was largely, ‘We’ve set up a Kingdom of God on Earth, we’ve set up a caliphate, you can come here and live in a purely Islamic environment. You don’t have to deal with the discrimination in the West. You don’t have to deal with the politics of the West.’ That was a major motivation for a lot of the women.”

He said Kurdish forces have been left with 55,000 detainees from 60 different countries for four or five years.

“I think there’s a national security argument to be made that these camps are not particularly safe or secure. There’s been several prison breaks already, several attacks on the camps by ISIS sleeper cells. So it could be the case that our Canadian citizens are just going to be allowed to wander around the Middle East by themselves.”

He said the repatriation would largely involve children. “I think we have an obligation to the children. And we have an obligation to the Kurds as well.”

Canada and Britain have been the Western countries most reluctant to repatriate their citizens from the camps in northeast Syria, Prof. Amarasingam said. France repatriated 40 children and 15 women earlier this month.

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