Court documents unsealed last week reveal that the RCMP intends to charge a Canadian ISIS foreign fighter with a string of terrorism offences.
Since his capture by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in January 2019, Mohammed Khalifa, a self-confessed ISIS fighter from Toronto, has been held at a prison in northeastern Syria.
An affidavit classified as “top secret” but unsealed by an Ontario Superior Court judge last Tuesday reveals that the RCMP intends to charge Khalifa with four separate indictable offences, including participation in a known terrorist group — namely ISIS — and counselling others to commit a terrorism offence.
Khalifa was also known to the RCMP by his nom de guerre for ISIS, Abu Radwan (sometimes spelled Abu Ridwan) al-Kanadi. Al-Kanadi is Arabic for “the Canadian.”
The documents reveal that the RCMP is building its case against Khalifa by intending to use his own admissions as evidence against him.
In September 2019, Khalifa did an audio-only interview from the Syrian prison with Global News journalist Stewart Bell, who reported that Khalifa displayed no apparent remorse for his role in ISIS.
Khalifa is heard in the interview saying, “If you ask me about martyrdom operations, yeah, I believe they’re correct and they’re acceptable. Does that mean that I would do it? Me, personally, I would shy away from it. I have my reasons.”
An affidavit classified as “a Top Secret document’ and signed by Const. Waleed Abousamak, a member of Canada’s Integrated National Security Team (INSET), which includes members of the RCMP and other law enforcement units, stated that Khalifa’s admissions “will be used as evidence of the offences he is alleged to have committed.”
While Ottawa has previously charged several Canadians abroad with offences connected to working with ISIS, the RCMP has said it either doesn’t know where they are or believes they’ve been killed in battle.
Khalifa, by contrast, is being held in a prison.
It is not clear whether Ottawa will take steps to repatriate Khalifa and have him stand trial in a Canadian court. CBC News asked Public Safety Canada in an email if it intends to do that, but the government ministry did not respond.
Capture of highest-ranked Canadian ISIS member
According to the affidavit, Khalifa quit his job as an information technology specialist at Kelly Services, an IBM contractor in Toronto, in 2013 and left Canada for Syria.
The RCMP obtained Khalifa’s student records from Seneca College in Toronto, where Khalifa studied information technology. It also said Kelly Services and CompuCom were served with production orders for his employment records and TD Bank Group and Scotiabank were compelled to produce his bank records.
In a television interview with CBC’s The Fifth Estate in the summer of 2019, Khalifa said, “I had a normal life back in Canada, I was doing very well for myself and I decided to give it up knowing … what I was sacrificing in the process. That was a decision I made and I stuck to that decision.”
Once in Syria, he joined Katibat-ul-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar, a group fighting to topple the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
WATCH | Mohammed Khalifa in a 2019 interview with CBC News:
Khalifa said he became a resident of Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi’s self-declared caliphate when his group merged with ISIS.
Fluent in both Arabic and English, Khalifa said he was assigned a job working as a translator and reporter in ISIS’s media department.
Khalifa admitted that ISIS paid him and his wife $50 US each per month and an additional $35 for each of their two children at the time, and that it was enough for them to live comfortably in Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate between 2014 and 2017.
‘English voice of ISIS’
Khalifa’s distinct North American English accent gained him international notoriety as “the English voice of ISIS.”
In his interview with The Fifth Estate, Khalifa admitted to being the English voice in “The Flames of War,” a brutal 2014 ISIS propaganda video. The video showed Syrian men forced to dig their own graves before being executed with bullets to the backs of their heads.
“They brought me a script, they said we want you to read this, and so I read it, I recorded it, and they took it, they asked for some changes, I re-recorded some parts, and that was it,” Khalifa told The Fifth Estate.
When asked whether he was the masked executioner in the video, Khalifa said he was not.
Khalifa told the CBC that after the fall of Raqqa in 2017, he discarded his media gear and picked up a gun. He was captured in January 2019 by Kurdish forces in Deir Al-Zour, following a fierce gun battle that left him injured.
CBC has independently confirmed that he remains in the same prison in northeastern Syria since his capture.
In defending its intention to use Khalifa’s comments as a basis for the charges instead of relying on their own investigation, RCMP Const. Waleed Abousamak said that “there is no other way by which the information can be reasonably obtained” and that “the public interest in the investigation and prosecution of a criminal offence outweighs the journalist’s right to privacy in gathering and disseminating information.”
Global News argued the RCMP’s use of the material could compromise the work of journalists and put them in danger by eroding trust with those who speak to them. The news organization argued the RCMP had the ability to conduct its own interview.
However, in his ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice B.P. O’Marra said he was not satisfied that “the local government and security forces could protect” RCMP investigators, noting that “the Canadian government has warned of the obvious dangers in Syria.”
How Khalifa was found
The documents unsealed last week reveal for the first time how the RCMP tracked Khalifa down.
The investigation into Khalifa was first launched after the U.S. Department of Defence provided the RCMP with ISIS documents recovered by coalition forces in Raqqa.
The first, paperwork dated Dec. 6, 2015, said, “requesting to secure a landline phone for Abu Radwan Al-Kanadi, for his urgent need.” At the time, coalition forces backed by the United States were using cell phone signals to track and eliminate ISIS fighters with drone attacks.
The second document, dated December 2015, was a “phone use contract for Abu Radwan Al-Kanadi who resides behind Abu Hayf Maze in Raqqa.”
However, the RCMP was unable to determine the true identity of al-Kanadi and the investigation was closed.
Following Khalifa’s capture in January 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) released a video of a captured ISIS fighter who gave his name as Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed. The RCMP suspected that he might be Abu Radwan al-Kanadi and the force reopened its investigation.
WATCH | The Fifth Estate’s full documentary on deradicalizing ISIS fighters:
In the affidavit, Abousamak said he pieced together that Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed was Khalifa by cross-referencing the Arabic and English versions of the SDF video. Khalifa’s parents and sister, who live in Toronto, confirmed to RCMP officers that the person in the SDF video was indeed Khalifa.
The RCMP then matched the signature on Khalifa’s 2011 Canadian passport application to his signature on the U.S. Department of Defence documents recovered in the ruins of Raqqa.
Dr. Colleen Kavanagh, a forensic audio expert, matched the voice of the captured fighter in the SDF video to that of the narrator of the “Flames of War” video.
According to the RCMP’s affidavit, Khalifa’s mother told the RCMP her son emptied his bank account and gifted her his life savings of $16,000 before leaving for Syria in 2013.
While Khalifa remains in the Syrian prison, his Kenyan wife and their three kids, who were born in Syria, are being detained at a separate facility in northeastern Syria.
CBC has learned that Khalifa and his wife are not allowed to visit or communicate with each other.