Death to terrorists if necessary but not necessarily death

This piece originally appeared in The Hill Times on December 11 (

All is fair in love and war, or so the saying goes.  Except that nothing is usually fair in either, especially when it comes to war.  We ought to have learned over the several millennia that we have been killing each other on the battlefield that war is anything but fair. Results are rarely clear cut, wars beget wars (WWI led directly to WWII),  and the effects on those on the periphery of the warring parties – what some euphemistically call ‘collateral damage nowadays – should be known to all. Wars may be inevitable at times and maybe there is still some value in an Augustinian or Thomistic notion of a ‘just war’ but surely by now we have advanced to the point where our default position is to avoid war, not wage it.

The same can be said for the ‘war on terror’, an unfortunate term if there ever was one.  There are good reasons to use military, lethal force against terrorist groups in narrow circumstances – Islamic State would qualify here as the organisation had created what could be seen as a state – and if so one assumes the international laws of war would apply.  The provisions of these laws call for proportionate use of force, avoiding civilian casualties, and some way of ending the conflict through parley between the combatants (the refusal of most terrorist groups to negotiate underscores why we really should not see this as a war).  There are rules, even in war.

What then should we make of news that some states are compiling lists of terrorists they seek to kill who happen to be their own citizens?   According to the CBC a few countries would rather kill their fellow citizens than see them return to possible carry out attacks at home.  There is some support for this as who wants to allow a terrorist to successfully come back in order to kill and maim?  Furthermore, these people chose to become terrorists: no one held a gun to their heads or ‘brainwashed’ them.  Given the heinous record of IS terrorists (beheadings, rapes, murders, immolations…) would anyone really object to having them killed?

Unfortunately, there are obstacles to creating ‘hit lists’.  As citizens of our countries they enjoy due process and in Canada at least there are Charter considerations (the ‘right to life’ clause).  This is why our country has not engaged in this practice and does not appear to be open to doing so at any point in the future.  Furthermore, if a Canadian joins IS that is in itself a criminal offence and that individual should be tried in a court of law here if necessary.  There are, of course, challenges to such an approach: how to amass enough evidence to lay charges, how to capture them alive to bring back to Canada, whether we can use intelligence/evidence collected in theatre or shared by another nation (anyone want to collaborate with Syria?).  Nevertheless, in theory there is a perfectly legal and transparent way to go about this.

On the other hand our military does have the authority to use lethal force on the battlefield.  This applies both to traditional ‘combatants’ as well as to ‘non-combatants’ who elect to take part in hostilities.  While the latter are normally considered civilians and hence afforded protection, their choice to take up arms nullifies that protection and they become ‘fair game’.

I, too, experience some discomfort in seeing ‘kill lists’ drawn up for terrorists, Canadian or otherwise.  If a Canadian dies in an airstrike or in a gun battle while engaged with our military or that of one of our allies I will not shed a tear.  A dead terrorist is a good terrorist after all (by that I simply mean that s/he no longer poses a threat and our protectors can shift limited and overstretched resources to other investigations, of which there are already far too many). But I don’t think we have to create itemised dossiers that we tick off one by one.

Luckily a lot of terrorists intend to die anyway and never want to come back to a land they see as rife with apostasy.  Should they fulfill their goal so much the better for the rest of us.  There is no need to go out of our way to target them for killing.



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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