‘My life was ripped apart’: Two Calgary Muslim men say CSIS wrongfully targeted them
Two Muslim men from Calgary say they were willing to assist Canada’s security agents with terror-related inquiries until CSIS started hounding them and shared their personal information with foreign states.
Speaking exclusively to CBC News, Yacine Meziane and Abderrahmane Ghanem say CSIS and the RCMP wrongfully lumped them in with a cluster of Calgary jihadis who left to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
They say were subjected to surveillance that quickly turned into harassment and eventually escalated into a full-scale disruption of their lives at home and abroad.
‘My life was ripped apart.’ – Yacine Meziane
“My life was ripped apart,” Meziane said.
Neither CSIS nor the RCMP would comment about individual cases.
However, in a lengthy response to CBC News, CSIS said that “care is taken to ensure an appropriate balance between the degree of intrusiveness of an investigation and the rights and freedoms of those being investigated.”
That’s not how Ghanem or Meziane see it. They’re demanding that Canadian intelligence agencies help clear their names and allow them to lead normal lives.
CBC News has heard from half a dozen other Calgary Muslim men who say they’ve been similarly hounded by CSIS but are too afraid to speak openly for fear of backlash from security agencies.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims says it has received 90 such complaints, in writing, in the past four years, and that number is probably low “because people do not know they can or should report these [incidents],” said Huda Alsarraj, NCCM’s human rights officer.
The Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which provides parliamentary oversight of CSIS, says it has received a similar number over the same period of time, but the agency does not keep track of the ethnicity of complainants.
His friends joined ISIS
Ghanem returned to Canada in August after spending 13 months at the El-Harrach prison in his native Algeria. He says he was tortured while in custody.
CBC is not able to independently verify Ghanem’s claim, but the poor treatment of prisoners at El-Harrach has been well documented.
“You’re in a cell with 75 people. Conditions were terrible. It wasn’t very healthy,” said Ghanem.
Speaking for the first time since his return, Ghanem said he is still living as if in jail. “I find it difficult going outside. I used to get out a lot,” he said.
It is not a mystery how Ghanem ended up on CSIS’s radar.
He was close with a group of Calgary men who left Canada to go fight with ISIS — Damian Clairmont, Wassim Elhaj Youssef, Salman Ashrafi and brothers Gregory and Collin Gordon.
“It felt like a family,” he said of the men he met at a downtown Calgary prayer hall.
“I think the main thing that kept us connected was that we were a young group of Muslims and we were trying our best to practice our faith. We were all learning about Islam, attending lectures and reading books.”
In 2013 he hosted the Gordon brothers at his apartment in Cairo. He says he didn’t know they were on their way to join ISIS in Syria. They were both killed in late 2014.
Ghanem said CSIS agents insisted he had encouraged his friends to leave. “All the blame was put on me,” Ghanem said.
Ghanem’s lawyer, Gary Caroline, said his client was punished for the choices his friends made.
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In 2016 Ghanem was detained in Oman while visiting his parents and deported to Algeria, where he was arrested and charged with belonging to a terrorist group outside of Algeria.
Caroline says he has no doubt CSIS provided the Algerian authorities with information which led to his client’s detention, although CBC News has no way to independently verify his assertion.
Ghanem said Algerian authorities put a confession in front of him, making him admit to being the ringleader of the Canadian terror cell in Calgary.
“When I tried to read it, I was insulted, yelled at and forced to sign,” Ghanem said. “I had no idea what I was signing. It was brutal.”
In April, an Algerian judge dismissed the charges against him, and Ghanem was cleared to return to Canada.
Interview became personal
Unlike Ghanem, Meziane did not personally know the Calgary ISIS recruits.
He agreed to meet with agents from Canada’s federal counterterror security force at his home in 2014.
“The impression they gave me is that I could help,” said Meziane.
In a recording of that conversation obtained by CBC News, officers from Integrated National Security and Enforcement Team (INSET) questioned Meziane about the whereabouts of two Calgary men who had gone missing — cousins Hussein and Jamal Borhot.
In a document Western intelligence agencies believe to be authentic, Hussein Borhot’s name appeared on a one-page ISIS “visa.” It contained his personal information including the cellphone number of his wife.
The cousins eventually returned to Calgary, and as far as CBC News can tell, neither has been charged with any terrorism-related offences.
Twenty minutes into the interview, the questions shifted from the Borhots to Meziane’s private life after agents told him he wasn’t under investigation.
The agents asked Meziane for his private email address and questions like, “What do you do? Where is your family? Do you have kids? What’s your Facebook account?” He became uncomfortable and terminated the meeting.
Meziane said CSIS agents refused to leave him alone, constantly showing up at his home, even calling him at work.
Meziane began feeling spooked and his wife was terrified, he said.
Moving to Kuwait
Wanting to get away from Canada for a while, Meziane accepted a job offer at an oil company in Kuwait.
On a visit back to Canada in 2016, he said, CSIS agents were waiting for him at Calgary’s airport with the same questions.
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Back in Kuwait, he was interrogated by airport security and held overnight in a room without a toilet. “They confiscated my cellphone and asked me about my social media accounts and people I knew in Canada,” he said.
Meziane said he registered a complaint with the Canadian embassy in Kuwait but was told there was nothing embassy officials could do.
On Dec. 21, 2016, he left Kuwait with his family to visit his parents in Algeria.
On Jan. 6, 2017, on their return, Meziane’s wife went ahead as usual to avoid having the kids see him being taken away by police.
“One of the police officers told me that I’ve been flagged by a foreign agency,” Meziane said.
“Another officer said, ‘Yacine, you are in trouble. You’re not allowed into Kuwait.’
He felt his only option was to return to Canada, where, he said, he had no job, no money and no place to live.
“I stayed homeless the whole winter in Calgary,” said Meziane.
Meziane wrote letters of complaint to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to the director of CSIS and to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
He filed a written complaint to the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC
Last March, Meziane gave a deposition to SIRC but has not received a response.
CSIS shares ‘threat-related’ info
In a written statement CSIS said it has “a responsibility to share threat-related information with its foreign partners in order to mitigate risks to public safety here and abroad.” But when sharing information, CSIS said, there are “strict controls on the use and dissemination of the information.”
But Caroline said he is opposed to Canada sharing information with the intelligence agencies of countries that breach human rights. “When word gets out, how much do you think Muslim men will want to help the RCMP and CSIS?” he said.
Meziane says he’s had no success finding employment since his return because, he believes, his name gets flagged on background checks.
“My question for CSIS is: what do you want? I am right here in Canada. You don’t want me to work, travel, have a life? What do you want from me?”