The ghost of jihadis past

There is a theory out there that killing terrorists, especially those in leadership positions, acts to put a damper on violent extremism, especially for those not quite committed to the cause.  The idea is that if wannabes see that joining a group leads to being targeted by an airstrike or a drone or special forces or other ‘kinetic’ action they may think twice about their decision.  I suppose this makes sense intuitively but I know of no empirical study that demonstrates this.  By the  way, this counter terrorism measure is sometimes called the ‘decapitation’ theory (it is not at all the same as what Islamic State does to its victims).

The problem with this belief is that it may not all that correct.  The unfortunate reality is that dead terrorists continue to live and spread their ideology thanks to the wonders of social media and the Internet.  In other words, death is not as final as it seems.

A good example of this cropped up last week in a piece by Global News reporter Stewart Bell about a Canadian man who is on an Interpol list as a possible IS terrorist who has been trained in suicide attacks and may be part of a group of as many as 173 such assailants.

What I found interesting in this report was a reference to one of those dead jihadis I started this blog with.  His name is – or rather was – Andre Poulin and he was from Timmins, Ontario (a city of about 40,000 in the northern part of the province).  Mr. Poulin converted to Islam, adopted the name Abu Muslim, and traveled to Syria where he died in 2013 fighting for IS.  He has become quite (in)famous thanks to a posthumous video released by the group and which has become a very powerful recruitment pitch.

For it was Mr. Poulin who allegedly radicalised the aforementioned Canadian and three of his friends.  It is unclear when this transformation occurred and whether it took place in person or online.  What does seem to be true is that something Mr. Poulin said to his pupils helped convince them that joining IS was a good idea (spoiler alert: it is not).  In this he joins a small band of radicalisers that collect recruits like the hockey cards he probably amassed when  he was growing up in Timmins (he mentions hockey at least twice in his video).

Radicalisers are a problem for security services, law enforcement agencies and government prosecutors because the really good ones hide behind freedom of speech guarantees.  So while they are very important cogs in the terrorism machinery they are seldom brought to court.  On occasion, though, one is arrested and this appears to have just happened in New York where Abu Faisal al-Jamaiki (born Trevor William Forrest) has been charged with recruiting people and facilitating their path to IS.

Al Jamaiki has been a thorn in the side of our protectors for years, but unlike Mr. Poulin he is still very much alive.  A better analogy to the Timmins’ native is Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-US citizen droned to death by the Americans back in 2011.  al-Awlaki is still a rockstar online as far as I can determine and his influence has survived his demise.

The lesson to be drawn here is to be cautious in celebrating the killing of terrorists.  Don’t get me wrong: a dead terrorist  is a much better scenario than one who is still alive and wreaking havoc.  But we need to be a little more realistic when we talk about the ‘finality’ of death when it comes to terrorism.  Ideology is a lot harder to kill than a human and if the particular humans we have eliminated have left hundreds of hours of videos and audio content behind it can effects that far outlast their lives among us.

There is an old saying that goes ‘old soldiers never die they just fade away’.  Maybe something analogous for terrorist ideologues is ‘old terrorists never die they just drone on and on’, although I think the new meaning for ‘drone’ might change the intent of this phrase.  In the end let’s not be so hasty in assigning dead terrorists to the ash heap of history.


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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