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Do convicted terrorists deserve a second chance?

You know you are getting old when you come across a story about an event you were heavily involved in and realise that it happened so long ago that most of your friends, family and acquaintances really have no idea what you are talking about when you raise it. In my case the story centres on the ‘Toronto 18’, an Al Qaeda (AQ)-inspired terrorist cell in the mid-2000s that planned three truck-borne fertiliser attacks in the GTA. Notice that I wrote ‘AQ-inspired’ and not ‘Islamic State’-inspired. The primary reason for this of course is that there was no such thing as IS back in 2005. It is also important for the reader to realise that today just as back then AQ is still a force to be reckoned with, a fact that has been lost in recent years as it seems everything tied to terrorism was IS-this and IS-that.

The Toronto 18 were dismissed by many as either the Keystone Cops of terrorism or an elaborate CSIS-RCMP hoax: no one really seemed to take them seriously. This is an error, of course, as many of the gang were convicted and received significant jail time. It was also a very important case for me at CSIS as it unfolded just as I was ramping up my own learning on Islamist extremism and radicalisation.

Well, despite the misfortune of having been lost in the mists of time and forgotten by pretty much every single Canadian, this band of brothers is back in the news, primarily because one of its key leaders is asking for temporary escorted leave to attend a ‘de-radicalisation’ meeting. I am referring to Shareef Abdelhalim, one of the oldest members of the cell. He also broke many radicalisation myths: he was well-established, from a devout family, was a software developer and was earning $350,000 a year. Not the erroneous ‘typical’ jihadi who is uneducated, unemployed and marginalised.

Mr. Abdelhalim’s own justification for his career shift to terrorism makes for interesting reading. He claims that he had “slipped into a party lifestyle” (I imagine $350,000 gets you into a lot of parties!) and as a result his family “deemed him a disappointment”, leading him to start attending mosque. He then began “spending time in cafes with people who fanned extremist views “. His anger over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the death and damage they caused Muslim civilians, was ‘stoked’ (NB a very important radicalisation catalyst) and he believed that Canada‚Äôs involvement in these wars would be withdrawn. Still, the lure of lucre tugged at him as he aimed to profit by short-selling stocks before the attacks blew up the Toronto Stock Exchange and wrecked the economy. He also says he was “a 20-year-old trapped in the body of a 30-year-old.”

Now, Mr. Abdelhaleem says he is a changed man. In response to a question from the Parole Board on whether he is still a terrorist, he answered “not any more” (this was his first appearance before the Parole Board of Canada, despite being eligible for parole on his life sentence since 2016). He says he has “adjusted” his way of thinking and would “rather die than re-offend”. Fascinatingly, he now thinks that he is in part responsible for the January 2017 attack on a Quebec City mosque and the recent Christchurch massacre. In his own words “my actions could help drive a white supremacist to kill people I wanted to help” and “acts of Islamic terrorism help spark this hatred against Muslim people”. All this ‘weighs on his conscience’ or so he maintains.

So he wants to get out of prison to attend a deradicalisation meeting with the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV), a Montreal-based group doing psycho-social intervention. It is also worth pointing out that he has been assaulted a few times in jail and still gets threats from fellow prisoners.

What to then in this case? Should he be allowed to attend the meeting? Does he deserve a second chance? In theory everyone does. But why can’t the CPRLV come to him in the institution where he is being held? I am sure that programs designed to help inmates can be adjusted to be given anywhere, including on the ‘inside’.

I have no idea whether Mr. Abdelhaleem is a reformed man, whether he has ‘seen the light’ or whether he still holds the views he held back in 2006. I also have no idea whether ‘deradicalisation’ works. While I hold no personal grudge towards the convicted Toronto 18 member I also know how serious this plot was and how many would have been killed and maimed had the operation not been foiled by CSIS, the RCMP and their partners. I also think, as I am sure many fellow Canadians do, that in some cases life sentences should mean life, especially where terrorism is involved.

The Parole Board has reserved its decision on Mr. Abdelhaleem’s request.
It is not known when, or even if, the decision will be made public. I, for one, will be watching closely.

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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