I don’t get it. We make a big deal of terrorism these days, too big in my opinion, but we have collectively decided that terrorism is a serious threat (which it is) and that we need to deal with it. Part of our response is making sure organisations like CSIS and the RCMP have enough resources and part is to draft new laws that deal with those that join terrorist groups.
We have created a ‘terrorist entity’ list that contains groups which it is illegal to join and we have spent the last couple of years agonising about ‘foreign fighters’ and the damage they can do (I even wrote a whole book about that threat – Western Foreign Fighters; the threat to homeland and international security – last year). CSIS tells us that we have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 foreign fighters and that some 60 have come home. These are people we should have a close look at, no?
With all this hype and all these freshly minted laws you would think that the government of Canada is champing at the bit to charge someone, right? Well, you would be wrong some of the time and a current case shows just how badly this is being handled (NB it is also hard and I will get to that).
Current case shows just how badly this is being handled
A Pakistani Canadian who traveled to the land of his ancestors ended up at a university in Lahore where he was exposed to a blatant extremist message (the need to ‘liberate’ Muslim lands) from Lashkar-e-Tayba, a listed terrorist entity in Canada. From there he traveled to Istanbul and made his way to the border with Syria where he deliberately sought to join Islamic State (IS), another listed terrorist entity in Canada. He freely admits all of this.
While with IS he says he was a member of the Hisbah (their ‘morality police’), witnessed horrific crimes against humanity, including crucifixions and executions, but maintains that he never killed anyone. Sound familiar? I wrote months ago about how when I was at CSIS and we interviewed returning terrorists they all said that they ‘drove the bus’ or ‘served tea’. In other words, they admitted no responsibility for the nastier things terrorist groups do.
If you did make that assumption then you would be wrong
One would assume that a returning foreign fighter who has direct, tangible, acknowledged links to not one but two listed terrorist groups would be arrested upon return. After all, CSIS and the RCMP have been quite explicit that these people pose a very real, albeit nebulous, threat to Canada. If you did make that assumption then you would be wrong.
He has not been arrested, he has not been charged and he is a free man. He claims that he has been told that he does not pose a threat, regrets his time in Syria and is now undergoing ‘deradicalisation’ with the help of a former CSIS/RCMP source that helped disrupt the Toronto 18 back in 2005-2006. Is this the right approach?
Most definitely not. There is so much that is wrong with this that it would take several posts to cover it in the detail required but I will try to summarise it as best I can:
Why have we made it illegal to join a terrorist group then not bother to apply the law when it is obvious that someone has done so?
In many cases we don’t have the intelligence/evidence to lay charges but this is a gift-wrapped case. To not lay charges is a travesty.
No security agency ever tells someone that s/he no longer poses a threat because that is impossible to determine.
The last thing CSIS or the RCMP want is to ignore someone who later commits a terrorist act: it is bad for these agencies and it is bad for Canada.
No one anywhere has any idea if deradicalisation works as there are precisely zero long-term studies on success rates.
For many experts deradicalisation, because of the haphazard way it which it is applied and the charlatans that offer programmes, is rapidly becoming pseudo-science, like homeopathic medicine. I like Mubin Shaikh (the CSIS/RCMP former source) and respect what he did for us back in 2006 but to be honest he has no idea if what he is doing is going to work.
In other instances we do charge people before they go abroad: in fact a case is starting tomorrow in Montreal.
If we are so afraid of the possible repercussions BEFORE they leave how can we not be as fearful AFTER they return with experience, training and exposure to the hate and violence professed by IS? By the way, other countries do treat returnees seriously: Denmark just charged one after he got back from IS.
The man in question may indeed feel remorse and may indeed not pose a threat to Canada. We will, unfortunately, never really know for sure. What we do know is that he committed a clear offence under the Criminal Code and, given his admission, this case should be a ‘slam dunk’. Why on earth he is not being charged is well beyond me.
As an aside no, I am not a ‘throw away the key’ kind of person. But we have to take terrorism seriously. And we have to implement the laws we have taken the time to draft and enact. If we do not, then why bother in the first place?
Canada’s reputation on counter terrorism could suffer because of this.
First there was the $10.5 payout to ‘child soldier’ (I prefer ‘child terrorist’ personally) to Omar Khadr: yes he met the letter of the definition but NOT the spirit. Now we don’t subject a returning foreign fighter to the law as written. As I wrote at the beginning, I don’t get it.
>> NEXT WEEK : Thank God for incompetent terrorists!
President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. firstname.lastname@example.org