What to do when your child runs away to become a terrorist

As a parent I know what it is like to worry about my kids.  I still worry about them, even though they are all in their twenties and doing very well, since that is what being a parent is all about.  After all, you want what is best for them, even when they do really stupid things.

Imagine yourself, then, in a position where your child has allegedly become a terrorist. That is exactly what a Canadian-UK couple is experiencing right now.  Ontario-born John Letts and his UK wife Sally Lane are worried sick about their son Jack Letts who is apparently languishing in a Kurdish prison and who may be suffering from torture at the hands of his jailers.  His parents are seeking the assistance of the government – well, governments actually, Canadian and UK – to get him out.  What father and mother would not do everything possible to rescue their child from danger?

There is, however, an extenuating circumstance here.  Jack Letts is known by another name – Jihadi Jack.  A former A student, Jack converted to Islam, traveled to Jordan in 2014 to learn Arabic and made his way into Syria later that year and joined Islamic State.  The UK has charged him with membership in a terrorist organisation and there is photographic proof of Mr. Letts making a hand gesture common among IS cadre.  Even his parents have been charged with financing terrorism after sending him money in Syria.

What to do then?  Should the Canadian government help secure his release?  What about the UK?  There are several complicating factors in this case:

a) what can the Canadian government actually do to assist?  I suppose we have some leverage with Kurdish authorities in light of our military assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga but beyond that it is unclear what we can do.  Besides, the younger Letts is not Canadian so do we even have  dog in this fight?

b) if Jack Letts a.k.a. Jihadi Jack joined IS then the Kurds have a vested interest in keeping him.  After all, IS did some pretty nasty things to the Kurds.  Should we not let them deal with a terrorist responsible for acts in their territory?

c) if he is released/returned he should be investigated for having joined a terrorist organisation. IS is listed in both the UK and Canada and if there is enough evidence to lay a charge (photos may help) then a charge should be laid.  We really need to take the fact that some of our citizens elected to associate themselves with IS seriously and not assume they are all disillusioned and disgruntled as they call claim to be.

It is touching that Mr. Letts and Ms. Lane are convinced that their son is innocent and that they want to get him home.  We all want to believe the best of our kids and are not prepared to accept that some make really bad choices.  But some do make really bad choices and will have to pay the price for those decisions.

For the record, I am not a heartless bastard in the small number of cases like these.  I have had conversations with the mothers of two dead Canadian terrorists and witnessed firsthand the pain and anguish they are going through (compounded by the likelihood they will never get their sons’ bodies back).  While I can sympathise with their loss I can nevertheless still condemn the stupidity of their children as well as also feel for the victims they may have killed or caused to suffer through the actions of the terrorist groups they joined.

As a parent I can still care for my children and yet expect them to own up to their actions and be subject to whatever penalty those actions merit under the law.  Sometimes we have to acknowledge that our offspring turn out in ways we never expected.  And that certainly applies when they joined a terrorist group.

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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