On June 3, 2017, Rehab Dhugmosh, a Syrian-born Canadian, attacked employees with a golf club at a Canadian Tire store in Toronto. But her story did not begin there.
A year prior, she left Toronto for Syria with the intent to join ISIS. Her brother contacted the RCMP and she was turned back at the Istanbul airport. Upon her return to Canada she was questioned by police, but claimed she was travelling to Syria to visit family; police decided not to lay charges and closed the file.
Dhugmosh is one of the few Canadian women who’ve been militarized and recruited by ISIS in the past few years. While Dhugmosh was sent back to Canada, others managed to join ISIS by marrying ISIS soldiers. Despite there being no evidence that suggests these women took part in combat-related terrorist activity, they are seen as a security threat and have been abandoned by their governments.
While the exact number of Canadians who’ve left the country to join ISIS remains unknown, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale estimated in January 2019 that about 250 high-risk extremist travellers with connections to Canada have travelled overseas. He said:
“Some of them have become battlefield combatants. Others did fundraising, operational planning, online propaganda, recruitment, training and other complicit activity. Some were just camp followers.”
In March 2019, U.S.-backed fighters rounded up thousands of people who had been living under ISIS control in Baghouz, Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, 47 of these detainees were Canadian. These detainees ended up in refugee camps in northeast Syria. While they have not yet been charged with a crime, they were arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions by authorities in overcrowded refugee camps.
Without any process in place to review the legality and necessity of their detention, these Canadians find themselves pleading with the government to be allowed to return home. Repatriation of these people remains far from resolved or desired by their governments, and Canada has largely taken a “it’s complicated” approach and abandoned its citizens.
Harder on women
The issue of losing citizenship, however, uniquely targets women. The New York Times reports that of the 59 Americans who had travelled to Syria to join ISIS, nearly all the American men captured in battle have been repatriated, but a number of American women and their children — at least 13 known to the Times — have not. Many find themselves pitted against their governments in a legal battle, suspected of engaging in terrorist activity, despite no evidence they participated in combat.
These women were only allowed entry into ISIS through marriage to a soldier; they were camp followers. The term camp followers is used to refer to the wives of soldiers, women of “good character” who follow their husbands into the battlefield to provide domestic services for the army.
Hoda Muthana, an American-born woman, left Alabama in 2014 to join ISIS. Shortly after arriving in Syria, she married an ISIS fighter. In 2018, as ISIS was rapidly losing territory, Muthana fled and has been living in a detention camp in Syria ever since. Her U.S. citizenship was revoked by the Donald Trump administration and on Jan. 19, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit upheld the ruling: Muthana is no longer a U.S. citizen.
Shamima Begum, a British citizen, left home to join ISIS in 2015. In Syria, she married a Dutch recruit and had three children — all of whom died. She was later found in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019, and her British citizenship was revoked. Her repeated efforts to return home have failed.
Begum shares a tent with Kimberly Gwen Polman. Polman is an American-Canadian who joined ISIS in 2015 after corresponding with a man in Syria; she used her American passport to fly from Vancouver to Istanbul to get married. She insists that she did not participate in the atrocities committed by ISIS and told the New York Times that when she tried to escape, she was thrown into a cell and raped. She surrendered to U.S.-backed security forces in Syria in 2019.
All three women are trying to return home.
Demilitarize and rehabilitate
These women’s participation in ISIS, albeit in a non-combatant role, makes them vulnerable to the revocation of their citizenship. But should legal procedures change following their detainment because of their non-combatant roles? What are the legal procedures to follow? And if women can be militarized by a foreign nation, can we demilitarize and rehabilitate them?
Canada needs a better framework to understand and analyze the participation of these camp followers and hold them accountable. Abandoning them in refugee camps or revoking their citizenship is simply offloading responsibilities.
These women need to be repatriated, investigated and rehabilitated.
Azra Rashid receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.