Australia, Belgium lead by example on returning foreign fighters -what about Canada?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on December 21, 2017

Canadians are nice people, or so we think of ourselves that way.  There is not much doubt that many see Canadians as ‘nice’ and even harmless: I recently read a Doonesbury comic in which one of the characters comments that there are few things in life as unremarkable as Canadians.  Damning with faint praise that.

Sometimes, though, we may be too nice.  I think this is what is happening with our response to the issue of Canadians who return to our country after having belonged to a terrorist group like Islamic State.  We know that close to 200 Canadians left to join up with IS and other extremist organisations and that many have died fighting what they must have believed was a good fight.  Others though must still be alive and a percentage of those could come back to Canada.  What then?

Well, if we followed the lead of some of our closest allies we would not hesitate to charge them with an offence, or more likely several offences, under the criminal code.  Australia recently charged a man with ‘foreign incursion’ after he returned from several months with IS in Raqqa, the first such Australian to be dealt with in this way.  The Belgian government has stated categorically that it will not ‘negotiate’ with returning foreign fighters (the Prime Minister called them ‘war criminals’).  And the US just handed down a 16-year sentence to an Iraqi refugee who sought to leave for Syria to join IS and learn to make explosives.

What are we doing about all this in Canada?  There is one outstanding trial in Montreal of a couple who wanted to join IS and a young man from Waterloo pleaded guilty to a terrorism charge back in October after getting back from Syria.  This is a good start and perhaps precedent setting as more Canadians will turn up following their ‘experiences’  in Syria and Iraq.

For many others though these returnees should be treated with care.  They may come back ‘traumatised’.  They may come back with physical wounds.  They may come back ‘disgusted’ at what they saw.  Their supporters seem to be suggesting that all this absolves them of the crimes they committed (yes, leaving Canada to join a terrorist group is an offence under section 83.01 of the Canadian Criminal Code).  It’s as if we should be nice to these ‘misguided’ individuals.

Such a response is naive, ignorant and dangerous.  Make no mistake about it, those who deliberately and with malice aforethought decided to go to the Middle East (or any other region of the world for that matter) to hook up with a terrorist group is a criminal.  What they did once there is additional and not necessary to make a criminal case.  Yes, if they did take part in further crimes that must be taken into consideration when deciding punishment, but the minute they started preparing to leave puts them squarely into the realm of a criminal offence.

I am not implying that every wannabe jihadi and foreign fighter who lives to come back to our country represents  a clear and present danger to Canadians.  In fact, most are probably incompetent dufuses, as several recent failed terrorist attacks in the West have demonstrated (the latest was the pipe bomb failure in New York on December 11).   Nevertheless we cannot dismiss those who elected to join a heinous group that decapitates prisoners and rapes girls as fools and hapless idiots.  We must take this seriously and hand down sentences that reflect the grave nature of what these individuals opted for.  Anything less is a travesty.

Being nice gets you a lot of mileage and advantages, especially in a world where niceness is lacking.  When it comes to terrorism however, nice guys finish last.



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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