Are terrorist victims receiving less sympathy than the terrorists who victimised them?

Is it just me or has there been a tendency of late, at least for some people, to see terrorists as victims? If you have been reading the many, many stories about those who joined Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist groups and who now want to come home, you may have noticed that they tend to present themselves as ‘victims’. Typical statements include things along the lines of:

  • “I didn’t know what I was doing!”
  • “It wasn’t my fault!”
  • “I was brainwashed!”
  • “IS was not the socially advanced terrorist organisation I thought it was!”
  • “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Together with these words are expressions of disbelief or anger that their governments are not bending over backwards to ‘rescue’ them from the terrible situations they ‘somehow’ find themselves in – none of which is at all the fault of their decision making of course.

I really don’t want to wade – again ! – into the ongoing debate of whether or not states have a legal and/or moral obligation to repatriate these terrorists, as I have written far too much on this already (to sum up my view – NO!). What I do want to comment on, however, is whether some in our societies are going overboard in painting these individuals as victims. I think that the answer is yes. I have read far too many op-ed pieces in which we are asked to feel sorry for terrorists. Feeling sorry for them would lead to doing whatever we can to help them. Is that right?

This issue came to me this morning as I read a story in a Belgian news site on the aftermath of the March 2016 terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and on the metro system, in which 34 people lost their lives and another 300 were injured. The United Nations has issued a report critical of the Belgian government, accusing it of failing to provide the proper medical and psychological support to victims of the victims. According to the author of that report, “the victims feel they have been left behind, and have had difficulty in finding medical or psychological support. They are affected by loss, pain and overwhelming trauma.”

As a former civil servant I know that governments work and move slowly. Still, it is hard to believe that almost three years after that attack the situation is this dire. True, the scale of the incident means that a lot of people need some kind of assistance and intervention, so there should be some kind of understanding in this matter. Yet, I – and I am sure many others – would insist that the real victims of terrorist crimes should get the help they deserve and demand. I am not a fan of lawsuits charging government incompetence in terrorist cases, but those same governments should nevertheless prioritise post-attack aid.

What will the public think if their elected officials are moving heaven and earth to bring back their terrorist citizens who chose to join IS and help create their ‘utopian’ Caliphate (perhaps ‘dystopian’ would be more accurate) and at the same time are dragging their feet on ensuring that those who suffered at the hands of terrorists have to wait in line? I cannot imagine their views will be charitable.

I am not calling for revenge in the case of foreign terrorist fighters: that is not the kind of person I am. At the same time I insist we stop calling these terrorists ‘victims’, carefully assess the threat they pose to us and to others, weigh our options on what to do with them, and put the real victims at the head of the line. Getting this wrong is not acceptable.

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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