Turkish authorities alleged a Canadian man had ISIS propaganda on his phone when he and his wife were arrested near the Syrian border this summer, CBC News has learned.
The newlywed couple were held for three months before being acquitted and returned to Canada in October.
The Turkish court heard allegations that the phone belonging to the husband, Ikar Mao, had received ISIS videos via Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, and that the couple left a letter for their families.
Mao said the videos appeared on his phone automatically as he was surfing the internet.
He told the court he wasn’t looking for them intentionally.
Both he and his wife told the court they had no plan to go to Syria, and both denied joining ISIS.
A New York-based terrorism consultant who has worked with the FBI isn’t buying it.
“It’s a huge red flag,” said Evan Kohlmann.
“Up until the last few days Telegram was the chief means that ISIS and its supporters were using to communicate with the mother organization — the mother ship as well as with each other,” he said.
The couple had been travelling around the Mediterranean and were detained by Turkish authorities in July.
Mao is scheduled to appear in court Friday
Mao is currently living under strict bail conditions he agreed to in November, including a curfew, an ankle bracelet and limited internet access. Ontario Court of Justice documents cite a “fear of terrorism offence,” but the case is under a publication ban and it’s not clear what led to the restrictions.
Mao has an appearance scheduled in a court north of Toronto Friday morning.
It’s also not clear if Canadian authorities have seen the Turkish evidence or if it forms part of their case here.
The Turkish court heard that videos found on Mao’s phone were sent through the Telegram app and depict ISIS soldiers with guns espousing the militant group’s propaganda.
Despite Mao’s acquittal, Kamran Bokhari, with the Center for Global Policy in Washington, thinks the information suggests Mao was in the ISIS orbit.
“If you have Telegram and then you have footage inside your Telegram account that shows jihadist videos or jihadist pictures or messages or memes, then of course that’s a very telltale sign,” Bokhari said.
Telegram was developed by Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov. ISIS has had a strong presence on the app, using it to take responsibility for attacks.
Law enforcement agencies have pushed to shut down accounts linked to the group, and the app purged several of them as recently as last month.
A letter to the families
In addition to having the app on his phone, Turkish authorities allege Mao and his wife left a letter for their families saying they intended to join ISIS. The couple denied that claim and said they simply didn’t want to live in a non-Muslim country.
Kohlmann and Bokhari say leaving a letter for family is typical of foreign fighters leaving their home country.
After the couple’s acquittal, the Turkish court said it would return a 64 GB Flash drive and a 2 TB external drive to the couple.
Kohlmann said ISIS has asked recruits to bring that kind of equipment with them.
“It could very well be a part of propaganda efforts inside of Syria. ISIS produces a tremendous amount of propaganda. They produce a lot of video. They produce a lot of audio, and a lot of this stuff is harvested directly from the battlefield,” Kohlmann said.
“In order to carry this material backwards and forwards — in order to transfer it between cameramen and the media editors and whatnot — it takes media devices to carry it.”
Questions remain as to what might motivate anyone to enter Syria while it is embroiled in conflict.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S.-led strike in October, but experts say the organization is very much alive.
“ISIS is not dead, and these cases are proving that the appeal that ISIS has to Westerners is still there, and they are still traveling to Syria and Iraq to the battlefield where ISIS still has a physical presence,” said Kohlmann.
“This organization is no longer just an organization. It’s a hybrid. It’s an organization and it’s a movement. These folks, they don’t need Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi anymore,” Kohlmann said.
Innocent misunderstanding not ruled out
Neither Kohlmann nor Bokhari rule out the possibility that the couple’s case could be an innocent misunderstanding, but they say it is unlikely.
“It’s possible that they did not have any intention of engaging in violence and they just wanted to be part of a context or an environment which they call ‘under Islamic rule,'” Bokhari said.
“But again, it’s a hard case to make because everybody knows — and these individuals who decided to make this journey also knew — that there was a lot of violence associated with this regime, the jihadist regime that ISIS had established. So it’s a hard case for the defence to make,” he said.
The couple’s families did not respond to requests for comment. Lawyers for Mao have previously declined comment, citing the publication ban in the Canadian case. They did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.