The most senior intelligence officer in charge of covert operations at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service went to Ankara in March, 2015, to persuade Turkish authorities to stay silent about the agency’s recruitment of a Syrian human smuggler who trafficked three British teenage girls to Islamic State militants, according to three sources.
The sources said the officer, Jeffrey Yaworski, who was at the time CSIS’s deputy director of operations, was carrying out a discreet but high-level campaign to prevent the spy agency from being publicly blamed for using the smuggler as an operative. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss national security matters.
One of the sources said Turkey eventually agreed to Mr. Yaworski’s request, but punished Canada by limiting the number of CSIS agents operating at the Canadian embassy in Ankara. CSIS also promised that any further clandestine activities in the country would be conducted as joint operations with Turkish intelligence, the source said.
The smuggler, Mohammed al-Rashed, was arrested by Turkish authorities on Feb. 28, 2015, within days of when he helped the girls cross the Turkish border into Syria. His capture threatened to place Canada at the centre of an international incident, after Turkish media reported that he had shared the girls’ passport details with CSIS, and that he had smuggled other British nationals seeking to join the Islamic State.
At the time of his arrest, Britain’s Scotland Yard had been frantically searching for the girls, and Turkey was unaware that CSIS had an Islamic State double agent operating in the country.
Turkey never publicly confirmed CSIS’s involvement with Mr. al-Rashed after Mr. Yaworski‘s travels to Ankara. The sources said he visited Turkey at least two times to meet senior Turkish officials in the aftermath of the operative’s arrest. One of the sources said Mr. Yaworski was trying to put the operational mess “back in the box.”
During the first visit, another source said, Mr. Yaworski apologized and asked the Turks to release Mr. al-Rashed, which Turkey declined to do because of the intense publicity in Britain about the missing girls. Turkey also did not want to be blamed for freeing an Islamic State human smuggler, since Ankara had been heavily criticized for failing to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, the source said.
Mr. Yaworski declined to comment on his interaction with Turkish authorities, saying through an intermediary that he is bound by the secrecy provisions of the Security Information Act.
CSIS also declined to discuss the matter. “There are important limits to what CSIS can confirm or deny given the need to protect sensitive techniques, methods and sources of intelligence,” spokesperson Eric Balsam said in a statement.
Around the time Mr. Yaworski was holding secret talks with Turkish authorities, CSIS convinced British counterterrorism officials to cover up the agency’s role in the handling of Mr. al-Rashed. Those discussions were revealed in The Secret History of the Five Eyes, a new book by author Richard Kerbaj that recounts parts of Mr. al-Rashed’s story.
Mr. Kerbaj interviewed Richard Walton, the chief of Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism command, who said two CSIS officials came to see him shortly after the arrest of Mr. al-Rashed. They informed Mr. Walton that CSIS knew about the trafficking of the three teens and asked the British to obscure the spy agency’s role.
In his book, Mr. Kerbaj also wrote that CSIS sent an unidentified top official to Ankara to beg Turkey’s forgiveness for running a counterintelligence operation in their country. Mr. Kerbaj subsequently learned that the official was Mr. Yaworski, and that he had travelled to Turkey on at least two occasions after the arrest of Mr. al-Rashed. As deputy director of operations, Mr. Yaworski was responsible for all undercover missions, including recruitment and running of spies.
Mr. Kerbaj provided Mr. Yaworski’s name to The Globe and Mail last week, and the three sources later confirmed that he had travelled to Ankara.
The Globe has reported, citing a source with direct knowledge, that Mr. al-Rashed was freed on Aug. 5 after serving years in a Turkish prison on terrorism and smuggling charges, including for trafficking the three British girls, who were aged 15 and 16 at the time. The source said CSIS had planned to relocate him to Canada after his release. The government will not say if he has been granted asylum.
Turkish media reported in early March, 2015, that Mr. al-Rashed had informed CSIS a week before his arrest that he helped the three girls cross into Syria. They also reported that he later told Turkish intelligence that CSIS had promised him asylum in Canada for spying on the Islamic State.
At the time, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Mr. al-Rashed had been working for the “intelligence services of a country in the coalition,” against the Islamic State. But he never named CSIS.
“The Turks were furious that CSIS had been operating an agent in their own backyard without their knowledge,” Mr. Kerbaj said in an interview. “So, there was a deal that was somehow brokered between the Canadian authorities and the Turkish authorities to make sure the story went away while the cover-up was being run in the U.K. to shut the whole thing down.”
Mr. Yaworski was promoted to acting CSIS director for a short period of time in spring 2017, between the retirement of Michel Coulombe and the appointment of current director David Vigneault. He retired from CSIS in 2019.
Mr. al-Rashed was first recruited by CSIS in 2013. The British teenagers he smuggled into Syria were 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana, 15-year-old Amira Abase and 15-year-old Shamima Begum.
Ms. Sultana and Ms. Abase are now believed to be dead. Ms. Begum was stripped of her British citizenship in 2019 and is now languishing in a Kurdish prison camp. A British court will hear an appeal in November from her lawyers to restore her citizenship.
Tasnime Akunjee, one of her lawyers, has since called on the Canadian government to hold an inquiry into what exactly happened.
Former CSIS intelligence officer Huda Mukbil said the agency failed to do a proper risk assessment on Mr. al-Rashed, because they were getting high-quality intelligence on Islamic State recruits from him, and maps of the group’s training camps in Syria.
”You work the sources and you pay them but you are also responsible for what they do,” she said. “We could have prevented these three girls from going.”
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