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Globe editorial: Don’t exaggerate the threat from returning Islamic State fighters

As you read this, a 22-year-old Montreal woman and her two baby daughters sit in war-torn Syria, awaiting word on a return to Canada.

In the mother's case, it will be a homecoming. Her children, though, were born under the flag of the so-called Islamic State "caliphate," which the woman left Canada to join in 2014.

Leaving aside obvious procedural problems – what to do with an Islamic State birth certificate? – this case, and others like it, raise difficult questions about how Canada should best handle presumably radicalized returnees.

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Our politicians have had a great deal of trouble answering these questions calmly and methodically, which is what the situation demands. On one side, you have a confused and occasionally contradictory response from the governing party in Ottawa. On the other, you have fearmongering and alarmism from Opposition MPs.

The credibility of the Conservatives – the party that brought us the shameful "barbaric cultural practices hotline" – on the file is questionable, to say the least. But Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale hasn't helped his own cause.

For one thing, it took him far too long to outline specific policy options and put a firm figure on the number of Canadian citizens and residents who travelled overseas to fight with IS.

According to a statement he released this week, 60 have returned to Canada, while another 190 remain abroad.

The 60 figure is problematic. Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher who has interviewed Canadian jihadists and their families for years, says it doesn't tell the whole story.

The government calculations may include people who returned home, left again and were killed abroad, he says. And definitions of who is or isn't a terrorist are not consistent across Canada's various police and intelligence agencies.

So what's the real number of bona fide former Islamic State fighters in our midst? Mr. Amarasingam puts it, at most, at 10.

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"There's no army of ISIS sleeper agents back in Canada waiting to kill you, who are in the meantime buying eggs at your local Sobey's. And the government didn't just let them walk back in," he wrote on social media this week. "Let's turn down the volume."

Surely it is not beyond the ken of well-funded institutions like CSIS, the RCMP, the Communications Security Establishment and local police to keep tabs on the clutch of former jihadists who present the greatest risk – even if their number turns out to be closer to 60 than 10.

And what of the larger number of returning women who heeded the call to marry jihadists and bear children? It's certainly true that an increasingly desperate IS leadership, doctrinally hostile to women and their rights, has developed a reliance on female suicide bombers.

Some researchers, including a team at the U.S.-based International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism, have concluded from interviews with the women of IS that the rapidly splintering group hopes they can be used as the vanguard of an eventual resurgence.

But it's not clear those women could easily be prosecuted in Canada, merely for associating with IS. University of Ottawa legal scholar Craig Forcese notes that membership in a terror organization is not automatically a crime; one must participate for the purpose of enhancing said group's terrorist activity.

Again, categories and terms matter. An extremist traveller is not exactly the same thing as a participant in terrorism.

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Then there's the fact many of the people who joined IS in Syria and Iraq are now deeply disillusioned and, in some cases, scarred by their experience.

Given the approach taken by countries such as France toward their citizens who joined the Islamic State – killing them while they're still overseas – much has been made, particularly by the Tories, of Canada's policy, which focuses on rehabilitation and deradicalization.

Mr. Goodale counters that "enforcement is the priority" and that a suite of counter-terrorism measures are in use, including surveillance, intelligence gathering and sharing, criminal investigations, threat assessments, peace bonds, no-fly lists and the revocation of passports.

As he puts it, "These are people who have travelled into a terrorist hotbed with the intention of participating in the depravity." He adds, though, that "public safety and security demand a prevention strategy."

Despite criticism from the opposition, there is evidence from multiple studies and pilot projects, some done in Canada, that the softer approach – counselling and therapy, particularly for those who cannot be prosecuted – can be effective.

It shouldn't be necessary to say this, but deradicalization does not equal coddling.

The fact is that the Montreal woman and her children are Canadian citizens, as are others who joined or became wrapped up in the world of jihad. They have obligations under Canadian law, but our country also has an obligation to them, which implies rehabilitation and reintegration. Let that be the starting point for a thoughtful, composed discussion.

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