The difficult question on when to release terrorist prisoners

No Canadian is unfamiliar with the name Karla Homolka.  She was the wife, and partner in crime, of Paul Bernardo, currently serving a life sentence for the brutal sex slayings of two young women in southern Ontario in the early 1990s.  Ms. Homolka only got a lesser punishment because of a controversial side deal with the Crown.

Well it turns out that Ms. Homolka is still making news.  She is out of prison and is now apparently guilty of taking her kids to school in Montreal.  Parents, and others, are livid and demanding to know why they were not informed that she was at their kids’s school (and apparently allowed to bring a dog into class for show and tell).

It would be trite to chalk this up to simple NIMBYism (the so-called ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome).  After all, the crime she and her ex committed was among the most heinous in Canadian history and many think she still poses a serious risk.  What does look like NIMBYism though is a protest in a tony Ottawa neighbourhood to stop a halfway house from opening.  Locals are afraid for their safety despite reams of data that these kinds of institutions for released cons are very safe.

But this is a blog on terrorism and so we need to bring it back to the question at hand.  Under what conditions should terrorists, who are after all just another form of criminals, be given their freedom?

Maybe for some this is a stupid blog.  When to release terrorists?  Never!  Why are we even debating this?  Why should someone engaged in violent extremism ever expect to see freedom again?  Lock the door and throw away the key!

This position notwithstanding, this is an issue we need to discuss, at least here in Canada.  Our prison system is such that all inmates, save for those responsible for the worst (like Paul Bernardo) have a right to rejoin society one day.  One hopes that they get the training, counselling and other assistance necessary so that they can exit as functioning citizens and not re-offend (although there are never guarantees for this).  After all, while public safety is paramount, and always should be, our jails cost a lot of money and keeping a lot of people there indefinitely makes little sense.

But back to terrorists: what about them?

The issue came to the fore again recently with a parole hearing for Fahim Ahmad, the  leader of the 2006 ‘Toronto 18’ cell.  It turns out that he was denied early release, in part because he told a court psychologist that he wanted to fight Islamic State.  This was probably not the best strategy for a convicted terrorist to use, even if he was claiming that he now wants to fight ON our side instead of AGAINST us.  As an aside I did talk to Mr. Ahmad a few years ago and I did not get the strong impression that he was remorseful for his actions, although I have to admit the possibility that he has changed.

Nevertheless the fact remains that he will be released one day.  Will he exit a model citizen?  Will he still harbour jihadi thoughts?  Will he still represent a danger to the Canadian public?  The answers to all these questions are unknowable at this time.

What is fairly clear is that Mr. Ahmad has not been through a formal ‘deradicalisation’ programme while incarcerated.  I am aware of some effort in this regard, however ad hoc, and even if you are skeptical of these kinds of approaches (as I am) they are surely better than nothing.  And yet I don’t think that the Canadian penitentiary system has any structured strategy on dealing with the mindsets of jailed terrorists (not that there are many and that may be part of the problem).  The Harper government’s decision to slash the prison chaplain roster was mean spirited to say the least.

So what will become of Mr. Ahmad?  I suppose time will tell.  Some convicted terrorists, including other members of the Toronto 18 have served their time, are now free, and have not re-engaged in jihad as far as I know.  Then there is the case of Ali Dirie (yes, he too was in the Toronto 18) who got out, travelled to Syria and died fighting there (and not against the jihadis).  Mr. Ahmad’s tale is yet to be told.

In any event we still haven’t come up with a strategy.  I realise that Correctional Services Canada is looking into it (or at least they were when I was still a civil servant) but I also just learned that the lead analyst has since moved on.

If a released terrorist goes on to commit an act in this country there will be hell to pay and a lot of finger pointing.  Sooner rather than later if we choose not to lock them up forever we do need a plan B.


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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