I must confess that I despair at times about the average person’s knowledge about and reaction to terrorism. On occasions some people panic and build the threat out of all proportion, cancelling their travel plans, calling for bans on immigration and ranting about the presence of ‘undesirables’ (i.e. Muslims) in our societies whom they view at worst as fifth columnists and at best as collaborators with or apologists for terrorist groups. On other occasions some people think that governments. security services and law enforcement agencies exaggerate the threat in order to get more resources or in keeping with a government’s ‘hidden agenda’. Neither approach is accurate or helpful.
So I am very happy to see that a recent Nanos poll in Canada shows that an overwhelming majority of Canadians surveyed want the government to take terrorism seriously, more specifically those who return to our country after having fought with terrorist groups like Islamic State. Fully 62 per cent of respondents support the prosecution of Canadians suspected of jihadi involvement abroad, as opposed to 28 per cent who say the government should prioritize rehabilitation and deradicalization; 10 per cent said they were unsure. This poll comes at a time when we have read about efforts around the world to deal with these returnees, with some people downplaying the threat they pose and suggesting that rehabilitation should be the preferred approach.
There should be no hesitation on this front: the preferred response to those who left Canada to fight with IS should be arrest, charges and prosecution. I am not naive as to the challenges behind this strategy. As the University of Waterloo’s Lorne Dawson (his views feature in the Globe and Mail article cited above) and I have argued for years (and I wrote an entire chapter on the difficulties of prosecution in my second book Western Foreign Fighters) this will be a hard task in light of the inability to collect evidence in a war zone. Sources will have to carefully vetted given that many may have terrorist sympathies – or worse – themselves, but this should not deter us.
We must give the message, loudly and clearly, that the conscious decision to join a terrorist group – no, they are NOT brainwashed – has consequences. This is particularly true for a heinous bunch of criminals that is (was?) IS but applies equally to every organisation listed as a terrorist entity in Canada. Bad choices leave one open to serious action: prosecution. It does not matter whether you decapitated captives, raped girls or ‘drove the bus’: the mere fact that you joined up is an offence and must be punished, if for no other reason than to (perhaps) deter the next generation from making an equally disastrous move.
If rehabilitation is an option at some point – and I do not know how the state determines who is salvageable and who is not – that process must come after prosecution. We cannot let these people return to a normal life as if nothing happened. There must be some penalty for your thinking that the murderous bunch of criminals that is IS was okay and that your engaging in crimes against humanity can be dismissed as an unfortunate phase. Should a convicted terrorist later be a suitable candidate for reform that would be a good outcome. But they must answer first for their crimes.
We will not win all the prosecutions we launch but the fear of failure, which seems to drive whether the Crown proceeds in this country with terrorism cases, must change. We will win some and we will learn from those we do not.
This is an important opportunity for Canada. We can send a very strong message that we will not tolerate it when our citizens join terrorist groups. The decision to leave our land to fight with one such group must be met with the full force of the law. Anything short of this makes a mockery of our justice system and our way of life, and is an insult to the hundreds of thousands who suffered under IS tyranny. We cannot let the victims down.