“Put the bags here,” says the man filming three British girls, who are about to cross from Turkey into Syria and become worldwide symbols of how the Islamic State group is luring western teenagers into its ranks.
He opens the trunk and tells them the journey will take less than an hour. He says he will return to the city of Urfa, referring to the town of Sanliurfa, near Syria’s border.
“Hurry, hurry,” he says. “A lot of police here. Go. Go. Get inside.”
That five-minute video — released Friday by Turkey’s A Haber news channel — is the latest clue in the case of an alleged informant who may have been working for both Canada and the Islamic State.
The man filming is purportedly the suspect, recording the girls in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, less than 50 kilometres from Syria. Some time after the video was filmed, the suspect was captured in Urfa — his arrest made public by Turkey’s foreign minister on Thursday.
Turkish media identified him as Mohammed al Rashid, a Syrian who was acting as an informant for Canada’s spy service, feeding information through the embassy in Jordan. According to local reports, he said he was co-operating in an attempt to get a Canadian passport and told Canadian intelligence about meeting the schoolgirls.
Turkish officials have accused him of helping smuggle foreigners into Syria, such as British teens Shamiana Begun and Amira Abase, both 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16.
Smuggling is a lucrative business in Turkey, where thousands of Syrian refugees are trying to eke out a living and Islamic State supporters visit to get supplies and medical treatment.
One former smuggler who went by his nickname Abu Abdul told the Star in a January interview that some smugglers support the Islamic State’s ideology, while others are just trying to make money.
Thousands of foreigners have slipped across Turkey’s border, including high-profile cases such as the British teens or Hayat Boumeddiene, the partner of Amedy Coulibaly, who killed hostages in a Jewish grocery store in Paris following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. It is believed she went to Urfa and soon after made her way into the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
The road from Gaziantep to the Syrian border has been dubbed the “jihadi highway,” and Turkey has been under intense pressure to stop foreigners from using this route. Ironically, when the Toronto Star travelled the road earlier this year Turkish officials were out in full force — holding us at the side of the road for two hours as our car and bags were searched upon suspicion of belonging to the Islamic State.
When Syria’s conflict first served as a rallying cry to Muslims worldwide nearly four years ago, many in the security and intelligence world compared it to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. Money, weapons, fighters, intelligence flowed into Afghanistan through the border Pakistani border town of Peshawar, which became home to a hurly-burly mix of mujahedeen, spies, journalists, activists, humanitarians and conflict junkies.
Intelligence services such as the CIA covertly supported the mujahedeen of that era, helping push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and helping bring an end to the Cold War.
Gaziantep has become today’s hub for all the characters that wars attract, albeit one with a Starbucks and Wi-Fi.
But as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a House committee hearing last month, “the Cold War was simple compared to this.”
That may be so, but there are parallels in how security services gather intelligence and the diplomatic dance of countries involved in fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh), which control parts of northern Syria and Iraq and has attracted as many 15,000 foreigners to populate its self-declared caliphate.
This week’s case has undoubtedly forced uncomfortable questions for Ottawa, from both Turkey and the U.K., as they probe what ties the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had with the suspect, if any.
Ray Boisvert, who served for three decades with CSIS before recently retiring, urged caution about jumping to any conclusions. “When I worked in that part of the world I met several people who were either detained or showed up at the embassy claiming they were a CIA agent or asset, or MI6, but weren’t,” he said referring to the American and British intelligence agencies.
“I’m doubly suspicious given the level of the diplomatic spat between Turkey and the U.K. and its allies over a number of issues about ISIS and especially the three girls.”
Federal government officials, who have seemingly talked about nothing but terrorism in the last few weeks, were largely silent Thursday and Friday when asked about the alleged Canadian informant.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said they would not comment on “operational matters,” which was an interesting choice of words that could be read to confirm there was indeed an operation.
A government source told the Star and other media outlets that the suspect was not “employed” by any Ottawa security department. Asked if he was working for CSIS, the source would not reply.
As Boisvert noted, the “nomenclature is pretty flexible,” so someone who is a “human source,” or an “asset” and providing CSIS information and getting paid, would not be considered employed.
“I told every intelligence officer that came through our training program that every person a CSIS officer met is a potential asset,” he said.