A first for Canadian anti-terrorism law

It should come as a surprise to no one that many Western governments, including Canada’s, are struggling with what to do about their citizens seeking to travel abroad to join terrorist groups such as Islamic State.  Measures to date have included passport revocation, peace bonds, monitoring and, where enough evidence is present, arrest and charges.  In a few cases, arrests have led to trials and convictions and hence to incarceration.  End of story, right?

Not so fast.

Today’s conviction of a Montreal teen on charges of seeking to leave Canada to join a terrorist organisation and carrying out a criminal act in support of a terrorist group (see story here) is a first in Canadian legal history (NB I first blogged on this case in Suffer the Young – 2 on September 21, 2015).  It is also important to point out that authorities were tipped off about the youth by his parents, which should put paid to the accusation that Canadian Muslims are not doing their part to help CSIS and the RCMP detect threats to national security.

Now the challenge begins.  The Crown has said that it will wait pending a psychological assessment (my bold prediction: they will find that this kid is more or less normal) and pre-sentencing report before recommending an appropriate sentence since “We have to promote his rehabilitation, his reintegration into society while continuing to protect the public from such terrorist acts.”

This is easier said than done.  As much as I have a lot of time for what Correctional Services Canada has done to prevent – or limit – radicalisation in prisons, the treatment and counselling of terrorist prisoners is less effective.  Thanks in part to the Harper government’s cancellation of some of the Islamic chaplaincy programme, it is not clear what is being done to deal with those convicted of terrorist offences.  One thing is certain: they are not the same as run-of-the-mill inmates and programmes for the latter are not easily translatable to the former.

A complicating factor is the age of the convict: he is classified as a young offender (although it is uncertain whether he will be sentenced as an adult as happened with Toronto 18 member Nishanthan Yogakrishnan).  Young offenders are treated separately under normal circumstances, as it should be.  But should young offender terrorists be treated “normally”?  It is hard to say.

Whatever is decided, prison officials will have to come to terms with a young man who is heavily radicalised and who wanted to fight (and possibly die) for a terrorist group.  I have no idea what strategy they will settle on and wish them well.  On the one hand, the younger the extremist, the better (in theory at least) the chances are of getting them off the path.  On the other hand, he was on the verge, or close to it, of traveling abroad, suggesting he was well down the path.

I fear that we will see more young people embrace violent ideology and go down the road to terrorism.  So, we will have lots of practice on what to do.  Best to start now.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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