Terrorism /

What drives a young man from his privileged life to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq? Morality, says Jack Letts – “why do I have this nice life, and others don’t?” – and a sense of Muslim duty. He had converted as a teenager, and when so-called Islamic State (IS) issued their call to arms, ‘Jihadi Jack’ was quick to answer. Now, imprisoned among the smouldering ruins of the broken caliphate, he awaits his fate.   

Detained as he fled the Battle of Raqqa, 23-years-old Letts has been in Kurdish custody since 2017. He is one of 800 foreign nationals imprisoned by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), swept up as the ill-fated caliphate collapsed. Facing renewed attacks from regrouped IS militants – and lacking the infrastructure or judicial capacity to hold their inmates indefinitely – the Kurds are calling on Western nations to repatriate their incarcerated fighters.  

Britain has shown little interest in playing ball. Like dozens of other IS-aligned UK nationals, Letts has had his citizenship summarily revoked. It’s a power reserved to “counter the terrorist threat” and “keep our country safe,” said the government, and one that can only be invoked when an individual holds dual-citizenship (a person can’t be rendered stateless under international law). Jack is Canadian through his father John, who condemned the government’s move as a ‘kick in the gut’.

Canada’s official response wasn’t much cheerier. Ottawa is “disappointed” in London’s “unilateral action to off-load their responsibilities,” said public safety minister Ralph Goodale. His government’s position is clear: Letts was radicalised in the UK, and it was from there that he departed for the Middle East, so he should be Britain’s problem. It’s a valid argument, but outmanoeuvred in the realm of international law, Letts’s future is now a Canadian issue.    

In practice, this means little for the young jihadi’s hopes of deliverance. While acknowledging his citizenship, Ottawa has said it has “no legal obligation to facilitate [his] return”, insisting that it won’t risk the safety of consular staff to pluck Letts from prison. The procession of journalists who’ve gained access to the young man suggests it may not be such an onerous task – but for the 33 Canadians festering behind Syrian bars, their country’s decision seems final.

Canada and the UK’s mutual reluctance to recover IS detainees reflects a general hesitation among Western nations. Buckling under the pressure of over 5,000 IS inmates, Kurdish jailers are desperate to lighten the load of foreign fighters. They’ve floated the idea of international tribunals, a move that would ensure suspects receive free and fair hearings. But with public opinion staunchly against jihadi defectors, there’s minimal appetite to offer them a Western prison cell – let alone a shot at exoneration.      

The risk of acquittal is a major concern for those fighting repatriation efforts. Criminality undertaken overseas is often difficult to prove in domestic courts, with evidence sparse or inadmissible. The USA has seen some IS recruits imprisoned – one man received a 20-year sentence – but others have walked for lack of proof. Letts acknowledges that he fought with the caliphate, but maintains that he neither killed nor enslaved in its name; whether he would be found guilty by a Canadian court is unclear. 

And there’s little certainty his case would even reach trial. Facilitating foreign terror is illegal under Canada’s criminal code, but only if the suspect departs from Canadian soil – Letts’s jihadi journey started in the UK. This judicial hurdle could well see him returned to North America for prosecution, only to walk free on a technicality. Letts was, by his own admission, ready to commit a suicide bombing in Syria; despite his repentance, society is unlikely to condone the freedom of such a character. 

With an election looming, the court of public opinion is more important than ever. Already Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rowed back on the issue of IS returnees, calculating that his typically softer line will lose votes. “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he said upon taking office in 2015, before repealing a terror law that allowed for the stripping of citizenship. Hemmed in by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s vow to never “lift a finger” to assist Letts, Trudeau has made clear that his team won’t be involving themselves with the young man, citizen or not. 

But to disregard repatriation entirely – however politically cogent – is a dangerous path to take, analysts warn. “If freed [from Syrian prisons], those still devoted to [IS] could reconnect with cells in the region or pay smugglers to help them reach Europe,” says Leah West, Amarnath Amarasingam, and Jessica Davis, a group of Canadian security experts. “Once free, these individuals could engage in further terrorist activity such as financing, recruitment, radicalisation and, of course, terrorist attacks”. 

Having experienced IS’s butchery first-hand, Letts claims to have turned his back on such extremism. Joining the group was “probably the stupidest” decision of his life, he acknowledges, arguing that his interest now lies in helping others deradicalise. But, at present, it seems doubtful he’ll ever be given that chance – redemption isn’t dished out generously, especially to those with a terrorist past.