Does jihad mean never having to say you’re sorry?

(with apologies to Erich Segal)

Some of you may have heard of a horrific accident last April in rural Saskatchewan when a bus carrying members of the Junior A Humboldt Broncos hockey team collided with a tractor-trailer whose driver had run a stop sign. 16 young men and their coach died and others were injured, some very seriously. For a country like Canada where hockey is a religion and almost everyone can identify with a road trip to play in another town during the long winter, this really hit home. Many, many Canadians honoured the memory of the Broncos players by placing hockey sticks outside their houses.

The trial of the truck driver has occurred and he pleaded guilty to all counts: 16 of dangerous driving causing death and 13 of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. The court has given the surviving families leave to make victim impact statements and I cannot imagine how difficult this has been emotionally. Some parents say that they cannot, and may never, forgive the driver, Jaskirat Singh Sidhu , for what he did: snuff the lives of 16 young men in the bloom of life.

In all honesty I do not know how I would react if it were my son who died. Would I be quick to forgive or would the pain be too strong still to do so? Would I feel differently after months or years had passed? They say that time heals all wounds, but….

While in Central Asia this week I heard that one government has a policy of releasing Islamist extremists who express regret and say they’re sorry for joining terrorist groups. The state recognises that some people realise that they ‘made a mistake’ in their decision process. I have no idea if these ‘repentant jihadis’ are really let go scot free: I imagine the security service keeps an eye on them to ensure their ‘apology’ is genuine.

This is an interesting policy and one I have never encountered before. It is either bold and exemplary or foolish or somewhere in between. And it certainly raises an interesting challenge for many countries that are dealing with the conundrum of what to do with their citizens who traveled to hook up with groups like Islamic State (IS) and either sneaked back home or are languishing in regional prisons in Iraq and Syria and begging to be repatriated. Some authorities, especially the Kurds, want Western nations to take their nationals back although some states are dithering.

I don’t want to rehash the subject of what threat returnees pose: you can read all about in my second book Western Foreign Fighters. What I want to dwell on is the issue of whether we can – or should – forgive terrorists for what they did.

I guess this speaks to a bigger question of how we as a society treat criminals. When those convicted of a crime go to prison, serve their sentence and are released, do we forgive them? I guess it depends on what they did: I am fairly certain that no one will ever forgive Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo for his torture of young women back in the 1990s – not that he is ever going to see the light of day. Should someone who made a grave mistake and had to sacrifice much of his/her life to pay for it not be given a second chance? What do you think?

Then there is terrorism which to many is a different kettle of fish. Especially IS which was responsible for such horrific acts as mass rapes, beheadings and other crimes too disgusting to enumerate. Do they get a ‘do over’? What if states cannot collect enough evidence to try and convict them (in many countries the mere action of leaving to join a terrorist group is an offence but you still have to prove it in court)? What if they say they’re sorry?

I am having a really hard time accepting any apology that does not also impose serious prison time. Some individuals may not have been responsible for barbaric acts of violence, but no one – and I mean NO ONE – can truthfully say they were not aware of the nature of IS before they left to join up. Seeking to become part of such a band of monsters, often gleefully, puts you in the same camp as the rapists and the executioners. Any state that does not punish this to the fullest extent of the law is making a mockery of the victims and their families.

Once convicted terrorists have had time to think of their actions then we can talk rehabilitation/reintegration/deradicalisation, although I have serious doubts about the reliability of the last one. This may sound harsh but I say lock ’em up, perhaps for a long time commensurate with their crimes, so they can work on that apology. We owe at least that to those whose lives were stolen.

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.

Leave a Reply