Feeling remorse for fighting for IS, brutalising people – does it matter?

There is a brilliant set of podcasts on the New York Times Web site by reporter Rukmini Callimachi and her team on Islamic State (IS).  If you haven’t listened to it and are interested in a first-hand account of what it was like to live in the so-called ‘Caliphate ‘ you are missing out. Yes, you have to be a NYT subscriber but this story alone is worth the cost (full disclosure: I am a Times subscriber and have been a fan of the paper for decades).

The main character is a Canadian who calls himself Abu Huzayfah who left Canada to join IS in 2o14.  I am only at episode four of ten but already am struggling with what to think about what he is telling Ms. Callimachi (I did discuss some of the moral and ethical challenges of talking to jihadis in an earlier blog),

In a nutshell, Abu Huzayfah admits to doing some pretty horrible things: whipping those who transgressed IS ‘laws’ (beard too short, pants too long, wife not wearing a nikab…) and executing the ‘enemies’ of Islam – who happen to be Sunni Muslims who did not have the foresight to ‘surrender’ to IS (“they were in our way” he said).

What should be made of all this?  Several aspects of this bother me.  First, I have heard nothing to suggest that this Canadian was forced to travel to Turkey to get to Syria to join IS.  In other words, he chose to do this willingly: at a minimum he is guilty of joining a ‘listed’ terrorist entity (Public Safety Canada maintains  a list of terrorist groups).  He is thus responsible for his own bad decision.

Secondly, as already noted he took part in brutal whippings and shootings at the behest of IS. If you listen to the podcasts I think you will find, as I did, that there is a sense of remorse and regret about what he did (or was ‘forced to do’?).  This should count for something as many violent extremists do no such thing (i.e. they seem to have no compassion or sense of humanity for their victims).  But how much should it count for?

In the wake of the Holocaust the world learned of thousands of Nazis who claimed they were ‘just following orders’.  They said that they did not like the brutality of their actions but carried out their duties for fear of what would happen to them and to their families if they did not.  Nevertheless, they were found guilty of war crimes and received long prison sentences.  Is Abu Huzayfah not in exactly the same situation?

I have no idea what will happen to this ‘former’ IS terrorist under Canadian law.  His confessions to Ms. Callimachi sure seem to constitute strong grounds to build a case against him, arrest him and bring him to trial.  Do we as Canadians – nay as humans – not demand at least this in light of what he and his IS cohorts did to the people of Iraq and Syria?  I am not calling for blood: I think he and others of his ilk deserve their day in court.  But to do nothing strikes me as unacceptable.

The Crown may currently be engaged in what I suggested in the previous paragraph and I acknowledge the serious difficulties in gathering evidence in a war zone like Syria.  Abu Huzayfah’s confession should, however, be taken into consideration.

I then asked myself “why is he doing this?”  Why is he sharing his story with Ms. Callimachi?  Is he truly remorseful?  Is he pulling a fast one?  Is he trying to get the horror of what he did off his chest?  Is he expecting understanding?   Does he want someone to say ‘it’s ok’?  Is he trying to divert attention away from him?   I have no idea.

In the end those who elected to participate in the horror that was IS are responsible for their actions.  Those actions constitute crimes, at times war crimes and even genocide (against the Yazidis).  Do these not deserve some form of punishment?  The reader is of course entitled to his or her opinion.  I know where I stand on this.

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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