Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending the Canadian Security Intelligence Service after details contained in a new book revived controversy over its overseas operations and how it used informants to gain insight into the Islamic State.
The book, The Secret History of the Five Eyes, by journalist Richard Kerbaj, is being published this week. It details a 2015 meeting where Richard Walton, who was at the time a Scotland Yard commander, told CSIS officials they were going too far in their dealings with an informant at the Syria-Turkey border.
Mr. Kerbaj writes that the informant was a human smuggler who provided Ottawa with intelligence about the people he was ferrying into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, including three British schoolgirls, who were aged 15 and 16 when they made the journey that same year. The girls’ stories were later covered extensively by international media, making them into symbols of a wave of radicalization.
“If you are running agents, you are acquiescing to what they are doing,” Mr. Walton said to the CSIS officials, according to an excerpt of the book that appeared in the Sunday Times. “You are turning a blind eye to their actions because it is being trumped by a rich vein of intelligence.”
Mr. Trudeau was pressed during a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday about CSIS’s alleged role in allowing that human smuggling to continue, and about whether the spy agency had covered up its dealings with the informant. He said the fight against terrorism “requires our intelligence services to continue to be flexible and to be creative.”
He would not comment directly on the matter of the CSIS informant and the British schoolgirls, but he said Canada’s intelligence officers “are bound by strict rules, by principles and values that Canadians hold dear, including around the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And we expect that those rules be followed.”
Mr. Trudeau was once a vocal critic of counterterrorism legislation. In the 2015 election that brought him to power, he campaigned on a vow to reform CSIS.
Around that time, extremists from many countries, including Canada, were travelling to the region to join or marry fighters for the Islamic State, which was using its territory to stage attacks abroad – including an operation that killed 130 people in Paris in 2015. Intelligence agencies such as CSIS were under pressure to produce information about the travellers and aid the military effort that would eventually oust the terrorist group.
Canada has never confirmed nor denied that it was operating a mole at the Turkish border. Turkey was the first to allege the existence of such a relationship. In 2015, the country arrested Mohammed al-Rashed, a 28-year-old man it identified as an Islamic State human smuggler. Turkey’s foreign minister said publicly that the suspect was feeding information about travellers to an unnamed Western intelligence agency. The Turkish news media identified CSIS as the agency in question, citing the imprisoned smuggler’s alleged admissions, as well as hidden-camera videos he had taken of his efforts to help the schoolgirls cross borders. He is still jailed in Turkey.
British lawyer Tasnime Akunjee, who represents the families of the now-former schoolgirls, told The Globe and Mail that Canada needs to hold an inquiry into these events. Two of the women are believed to have died in the Islamic State war zone, he said.
He added that the third, Shamima Begum, is languishing as a prisoner of war in a Kurdish prison camp, where her newborn child died in harsh conditions.
“Canada has a history of not applying stringent democratic values when it comes to security operations,” Mr. Akunjee said.
He was referencing Canadian public inquiries from the early 2000s that exposed how CSIS and RCMP security operations led to Canadian citizens being detained and tortured overseas.
“Canada didn’t seem to have any trouble spending its treasure and time in trafficking Shamima Begum through a safe haven into Syria,” Mr. Akunjee said. “We would want an inquiry as to how this has taken place.”
The U.K. Metropolitan Police Service (the formal name for Scotland Yard) did not respond to requests for comment about the 2015 meeting. CSIS also did not respond to requests for comment.
Some observers say paid informants are valuable to security agencies precisely because they are ensconced in illegal activities, and that this would amount to a crucial part of the smuggler’s story. “Did he provide information that led Canadians to not be smuggled?” asked Leah West, a former federal Justice Department lawyer who teaches national security law at Carleton University.
“That information could have had positive implications on Canadian national security,” she said. “But we don’t know what he gave us.”
The BBC reported this week that it had obtained an intelligence dossier on the smuggler. The report says he was relaying intelligence to the Canadian embassy in Jordan, and that he passed along the passport details of the three schoolgirls – but only after they had already crossed into Syria.
According to the BBC report, he also helped Canadian intelligence officers map the locations of the homes of Islamic State fighters and supplied screenshots of electronic conversations he was having with them.
When Turkey first aired its allegations against CSIS in 2015, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were the third party in the House of Commons. At the time, Mr. Trudeau was vowing to institute improved oversight of CSIS if he was elected prime minister.
Once the Liberal government gained power, it did make changes to the way the government oversees intelligence agencies. In the years since, newly empowered watchdog agencies have released reports suggesting that CSIS has at times erred in its pursuit of foreign fighters flocking to war zones.
But many details have been held back from public release, and it is not clear today what actions have been taken to address the problems highlighted in those reports. “Although overseas operations have always been complex and dangerous undertakings, the risks associated with working against [the Islamic State] are particularly challenging,” says a 2015 review by the former Security Intelligence Review Committee (now known as the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency). It speaks of a case where “CSIS should have notified the minister” and where Canadian diplomats “were insufficiently briefed.”
In 2020, the Federal Court released a redacted ruling on CSIS’s relationships with overseas informants. “The investigation of Canadian foreign fighters … is particularly challenging,” the decision says. In it, Justice Patrick Gleeson criticizes the agency for not being forthcoming with the court about its intelligence operations.
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