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Canadian Government Won't Repatriate Toronto Man Who Joined ISIS


A man who once joined ISIS says all he wants now is to return home to Canada. His trouble? Canada wants nothing to do with him. Nobody claims him. And he met NPR's Jane Arraf.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The thing about Mohammad Ali Saeed is he seems so ordinary.

MOHAMMAD ALI SAEED: I like American football. I used to follow the Chicago Bears.

ARRAF: We meet in a Kurdish intelligence office in northeastern Syria. It's the region where Saeed, who's 28, has been held since he was captured more than a year ago. I've asked Kurdish officials to interview an ISIS fighter from a Western country, and they bring in Saeed. He was one of the first Canadian fighters publicly identified as joining ISIS in 2014. He's been interviewed by Canadian media trying to figure out how a young man from the Toronto area ends up being a propagandist for ISIS.

Saeed wears a gray sweatshirt with a blue T-shirt underneath. His short black beard has traces of gray. He says he had planned to study aerospace engineering. But in university, he just felt lost.

SAEED: I don't know. Things just started going south. And I was very depressed at the time. I stopped going to classes, and I eventually got kicked out after the first year.

ARRAF: Saeed says it wasn't ISIS that drew him to Syria. He says he wanted to fight the Syrian regime because they were using chemical weapons and killing civilians. So he worked in the Alberta oil fields to make money for a ticket to Turkey. He left Canada five years ago, joining thousands of foreigners flocking to the self-declared Islamic State. The vast majority of the western ISIS fighters were European, with a few dozen Canadians and Americans.

SAEED: I mean, it doesn't take a genius. I mean, Syria is next to Turkey, so the first step is obviously getting to Turkey. After that, you make your way around. So for me, it was go with the flow.

ARRAF: Saeed says he wasn't particularly religious. But he says he believed in ISIS at the beginning, and he was enthusiastic about it. Calling himself Abu Turaab al-Kanadi, he created a Twitter account encouraging others to join and to launch attacks on Western countries. On social media, he celebrated the beheading of American journalist James Foley and joked about playing soccer with his head. And he was trained as a sniper, operating on the front lines and then training others at a camp. He claims he doesn't know if he hit anyone.

SAEED: I'm not going to sit here and tell you, oh, you know, I should be free. And I just want to go home back to my mom and my dad and my sisters, all my friends. If the Canadian government wants to prosecute me, go ahead.

ARRAF: I ask him what he thinks he could be prosecuted for.

SAEED: Joining a terrorist organization. I did snipers training. But, I mean, everyone here is forced to do training.

ARRAF: But the Canadian government doesn't want Saeed or the other ISIS fighters and families back. In 10 months in jail, Saeed has never spoken to a Canadian official. Saeed also has a Canadian wife and two small children born in Syria. They're in detention in another camp. Canada says it isn't repatriating citizens from that part of Syria. Regarding the children, a Canadian government spokesman says, immediate answers aren't apparent. We don't pretend there's an easy way out.

Saeed has lived in Canada since he was a child, but he was born in Pakistan. He hasn't been to that country since his family immigrated. Canada has not threatened to strip ISIS fighters of citizenship, but it says it has no obligation to bring them home.

Saeed has spent almost three months in solitary confinement. For the first nine months, he says he was at a U.S.-run detention center in Syria, where he was interrogated mostly by Americans. The U.S. military backed Kurdish-Syrian forces in their fight against ISIS. I ask him how he was treated when he was captured.

SAEED: Oh, we'll save that for another day. It's better that way.

ARRAF: His interview is being videotaped by his captors, and he seems nervous about the question. But he says some of the Americans were nice to him, bringing him books.

SAEED: It was fiction novels. A lot of it was John Grisham.

ARRAF: He hasn't had any news about his wife and children. He says he hasn't been able to contact his parents. Saeed keeps scratching his arms and legs because of a skin disease. He says he's asked to see a doctor for the past five months. And he's losing hope.

SAEED: And I don't know how much longer I can take. I'm very sick physically, exhausted mentally, spiritually. I mean, sometimes I get suicidal thoughts, but I guess that's natural sadness, depression. It's like there's no light at the end of this tunnel.

ARRAF: He says he's a changed man now - perhaps too late, though, for a government that doesn't want to deal with him.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, in northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.