Catch and release

The better we in Canada get at counter terrorism – and we’re pretty good to start – the more we will have to deal with people that get caught, sentenced to prison and possibly released.  I have already blogged on how well we do in general in this country with preventing terrorist inmates from spreading their poisonous ideology to others (see my blog Stir Crazy of July 19, 2015) and I do not think that much has changed since I wrote that piece.

But now we are seeing some convicted of terrorism nearing the end of their terms in prison or granted privileges that are available – in theory – to all inmates.  Case in point, the decision to allow Toronto 18 member Saad Gaya day parole to pursue graduate studies (see story here).  This marks quite a turnaround for the 28-year old terrorist: a few months ago he was slated to lose his Canadian citizenship under a poorly thought out (and vindictive?) plan by the Harper government to strip all terrorists of that privilege.  The election of the Trudeau gang has put that project on hold.

So, the question remains: does Mr, Gaya still pose a threat to national security and should he be released on day parole?

We have to accept that there is no system, no model and no paradigm that can guarantee zero risk.  We can only rely on probabilities.  Correctional Services Canada psychologists rank Mr. Gaya in the “moderate” range for general and violent recidivism and his “reintegration potential” is seen as medium.  Nevertheless, the agency believes that he has begun to abandon the extremist ideology that led him and his cohorts to plan attacks back in 2oo6.

Unless there are programmes of which I am unaware, Mr. Gaya has not been “deradicalised”.  Even if he had been through such a programme, there are no guarantees that these efforts work.  He could, under the right (wrong?) circumstances, find himself back with likeminded people and re-offend.  Therefore, where does that leave us?

I have to acknowledge that I have spoken with Mr. Gaya on two occasions in the past.  Unlike other terrorists  I have had the opportunity to interview, he alone struck me as remorseful.  It is important to note, however, that I am not a psychologist nor a trained social worker.  What I have is instinct assisted by years as a terrorism analyst.  My gut tells me he’s ok.  That may not give some people much comfort.

We face two big challenges when it comes to terrorist prisoners in Canada.  The first is that they will all get out eventually and we will have to figure out what we can do to provide the best chances for these men to become average Canadian citizens.  Whether what we elect to do occurs while they are still inmates or after they are free is up in the air (probably a combination of both is best).  Secondly, we have to accept the counter-intuitive reality that very few terrorist inmates are inherently violent.  They are not like other violent inmates and have to be treated differently if we want to achieve low recidivism rates.  The fact that Mr. Gaya is being allowed to pursue graduate studies also speaks volumes.

Mr. Gaya and others will be free men one day.  They will have “paid their dues” to society.  Then what?  I guess we will wait and see.  But we will have to do this right: our security hinges on it.

I wish Mr. Gaya all the best in his quest to live a normal life in spite of his previous sins.  I think he will need that and more.

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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