The author of a new book alleging a contractor for Canada’s top spy agency once trafficked three British teens to Islamic State militants said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service delayed alerting U.K. authorities until it became clear the matter would be made public.
Richard Kerbaj, the British-based author of The Secret History of the Five Eyes, about the intelligence-sharing alliance between five countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – says CSIS withheld information about its recruit’s role in smuggling three British girls, aged between 15 and 16, from London until after its recruit, Mohammed al-Rashed, was arrested by Turkish authorities.
The case of Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, 15, and Amira Abase, 15, generated headlines around the world in February, 2015, after they flew to Istanbul from London. They were among more than 500 women from Western countries who had headed to Syria to join the Islamic State. The three teenagers from east London “had become part of a new and rapidly growing phenomenon of young women being drawn to the battlefield not for combat but rather as potential spouses for jihadists,” according to the book.
Their disappearance prompted an emotional appeal by their families, urging them to return home, even as British counter-intelligence was in the midst of what Mr. Kerbaj called an unprecedented campaign asking for people to come forward with information on the exodus of jihadis and their supporters to Syria. Mr. al-Rashed allegedly helped the girls cross over into Syria after they arrived in Turkey on Feb. 17, 2015.
Mr. Kerbaj said CSIS learned of Mr. al-Rashed’s role in trafficking the girls to Syria on Feb. 21, 2015. “Instead of providing that information immediately to the British counterterrorism authorities, they just sat on it,” he said in an interview.
It was only after Mr. al-Rashed was arrested on Feb. 28, 2015, that CSIS arranged to meet with the head of London’s Metropolitan Police counterterrorism command. Mr. Kerbaj alleges Canada was aware Turkey would soon leak details of the CSIS operative and was trying to get ahead of the story. “It was only after he was arrested, and they feared this could become public that the Canadians made a move and notified the British authorities,” he said.
He described CSIS’s conduct as “bizarre behaviour” and part of a cover-up to obscure the agency’s role in recruiting and running Mr. al-Rashed. In his book, Mr. Kerbaj also says CSIS sent a high-level official to Ankara “to beg forgiveness for failing to inform Turkish authorities they had been running a counter-intelligence operation in their territory.”
Mr. Kerbaj said he was unsuccessful in getting CSIS to explain its side of the story, despite attempting for about six months to get the agency to answer questions.
He said intelligence agencies, by definition, should be recruiting informants. “They should be doing this kind of work. When it came to recruiting this Syrian man who was running this smuggling operation – I think it’s quite a laudable thing.”
He said the Canadian spy agency’s reputation appears to have taken a hit since the reporting in his book was made public.
Mr. al-Rashed was recruited by CSIS some time earlier when the Syrian submitted an asylum application through Canada’s embassy in Jordan. CSIS persuaded him to start documenting details of the people he smuggled for the Islamic State by photographing their passports on the pretext that he required proof of identification to buy tickets for their travel. He would then upload the passport images to his laptop and forward them to his CSIS handler at the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Kerbaj said Canada plays a valuable role in what he called the most powerful intelligence-sharing organization in the world.
Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are the junior players and are fortunate to be able to get intelligence from the United States, which spends US$84-billion annually on intelligence gathering, compared with $1.6-billion for Canada.
“America is the lead singer and the other four are backup vocalists,” he said. “They all bring some sense of value, whether it is geographic positioning, whether it is analysis or assessment or dissenting voices.”
Mr. Kerbaj said the Australians provide strong human intelligence on Chinese activities in the Pacific region, while Canada is known for its intelligence assessments and signals intelligence on Russia provided by the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyber intelligence agency.
“The Canadians provide very good assessments. That is a fairly well-known thing and very well respected,” he said.
Mr. Kerbaj said Canada’s intelligence assessment that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was appreciated by some of the other Five Eyes countries, even though it upset George W. Bush’s administration.
He said Canada has also had intelligence failures that upset other members of the Five Eyes, particularly when CSIS ignored warnings from the FBI that Royal Canadian Navy sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle had been selling top-secret allied intelligence to Russia.
Mr. Delisle’s activities were particularly damaging because of his access to the “Stone Ghost” database of intelligence shared between the United States and some allies. Referring to the information he passed on, Mr. Delisle testified that: “It was never really Canadian stuff. … There was American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff – it was everybody’s stuff.”
Mr. Kerbaj said Canada’s Five Eyes partners were upset about the damaging espionage but accepted that it could have happened to them as well.
Brandon Champagne, a spokesperson for CSIS, said the agency cannot publicly comment on the specifics of its investigations.
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said CSIS learned of Mr. al-Rashed’s role in trafficking the girls to Syria on Feb. 23, 2015. In fact, it was Feb. 21. This version has been corrected. As well, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Canadian embassy was in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. This version has been corrected.