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Canada to ‘follow up’ on claims its spy smuggled British schoolgirls to ISIS

Renu Begum, sister of Shamima Begum, holds her sister's photo as she is interviewed on Feb. 22, 2015, in London. (WPA Pool/Getty Images)
3 min

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would “follow up” on allegations that one of its spies smuggled three British schoolgirls to join Islamic State militants in Syria in 2015.

Shamima Begum was 15 when she boarded a flight from London to Turkey with two other teenage girls, then crossed the Syrian border in a journey that stunned Britain. Her case morphed into one of the most infamous among thousands involving foreign nationals who flocked from around the world to join the Islamic State during its brutal rule over swaths of Syria and Iraq.

The British government has since stripped Begum, who was born in Britain, of her citizenship, fueling a global debate over the responsibility of countries to repatriate their citizens after the territorial defeat of the militants.

From a detention camp in northern Syria where she has languished in recent years, Begum, now 23, has appealed to be allowed to return to the United Kingdom. She has given birth to three children, who all died young.

In a book set for release Thursday, author Richard Kerbaj claims that an informant for Canada helped smuggle Begum into Syria with her schoolmates and told his Canadian handler shortly afterward. Canada later covered up its involvement, he added.

A BBC investigation also reported this week that a smuggler who provided intelligence to Canada facilitated Begum’s trip to Syria. The BBC also said he shared her passport details with Canadian authorities.

Former ISIS teenage bride who left Britain to join militant group in Syria tells the public: ‘I’m sorry’

The accusations of Western involvement in or knowledge of Begum’s journey to Syria have revived a debate about the decision to revoke her citizenship.

In response to questions about whether Canada recruited an ISIS facilitator and worked with Britain to keep its role hidden, Trudeau said his country would examine the allegations. He stood by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which he said operates “in a particularly dangerous world” while “bound by strict rules.”

“The fight against terrorism requires our intelligence services to continue to be flexible and to be creative in their approaches,” Trudeau told reporters Wednesday.

“I know there are questions about certain incidents or operations of the past, and we will ensure to follow up on this,” he added.

A spokesman for the British government said Thursday it has a “long-standing policy that we do not comment on operational intelligence or security matters.”

Scores of Britons traveled to join the extremist group, known as ISIS, that terrorized millions of people with sexual slavery and public beheadings. Of an estimated 900 people from Britain who traveled to Iraq or Syria, some 20 percent were killed in the conflict zone and 40 percent returned, according to official figures.

With memories of terrorist attacks in European capitals still fresh, other countries have also hesitated to repatriate their citizens, who may be hard to prosecute.

How countries may try to avoid taking back ISIS fighters and their families

Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer for Begum’s family, raised questions about which British officials knew of the role of an intelligence operative for Canada, a U.K. ally, in smuggling the teenage girls when the government in London decided to revoke Begum’s citizenship.

He said the latest reports were of “crucial importance” as her legal team, in a bid to challenge the decision, argues that she was trafficked to Syria.

Adela Suliman contributed to this report.