How hard should countries act to repatriate their nationals who fought with terrorist groups?

When I was in high school the movie Midnight Express came out (yes, I am THAT old).  This was a film adaptation of the true story of Billy Hayes, an American arrested and jailed in the early 1970s for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey.  The movie portrayed Mr. Hayes as the poor American beaten savagely by Turkish prison guards before he makes his escape (the film escape varies wildly from how it actually happened, as related in the book of the same name).

At the time what really bothered me was the way in which a drug smuggler was treated as a hero beset by cruel third world officials.  The movie tries to present Mr. Hayes as a victim rather than a perpetrator in its attempt to gain audience sympathy.  Interestingly, Mr. Hayes later apparently expressed regret over the way in which the film showed all Turks to be violent.

I did not buy this then and I don’t buy it now when it comes to the problem of foreign terrorist fighters.  There are those who are doing their utmost to paint a picture of those who left our country to join heinous groups such as IS as misguided individuals who now realise that what they saw in Iraq and Syria was not what they signed up for and hence as citizens who should be welcomed home by the very countries they rejected (and often vilified in their social media postings).  It is as if we should say ‘let bygones be bygones’.

This is a ridiculous view that may get people killed.  Let no one try to convince you that anyone who deliberately, and often after careful and long planning, elected to join IS did not know what they were signing up for.  IS was masterly at getting its message out online, replete with gruesome videos, and no one could not have realised what the terrorist group stood for.  To grant them a pass on their decision to be part of the terrorist outfit would be a travesty.

We may argue whether each and every terrorist who spent time with IS poses a clear and present danger to public safety.  In fact, solid research by renowned Norwegian jihadi expert Thomas Hegghammer has demonstrated that only one in nine on average leave terrorist groups abroad and wreak havoc in their homelands.  This figure is both comforting and worrying: it may be that only ten per cent plan acts, but it is far from clear which ten per cent our security and law enforcement services need to worry about.

What then should be done with those Canadians who have apparently had a change of heart and want to come home?  Some now find themselves in Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish custody and would rather not be there.  In truth, there is a very real possibility that they could be mistreated in those prisons.  What then should be the Canadian response?

It might be useful to see what other Western nations are doing about this issue.  Here are a few examples:

At the risk of sounding cruel, these nations have it right.  The state has no obligation to help those who turned their back on their country, joined a terrorist group in a foreign land (which is a serious crime in itself), probably committed acts of terrorism, and are now subject to the laws of the governments currently holding them.  Even if those laws permit sentences we find abhorrent, such as capital punishment, who are we to tell sovereign states what they can and cannot do to people found guilty of terrorism on their soil?  Are we that arrogant?

If we choose to try repatriation it should be with the sole purpose of laying charges once these terrorists return (I am not ignoring the challenges to this but just because it is hard does not mean we should not do it).  Enough with namby-pamby calls for ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘deradicalisation’- terms that mean various things to various people and which describe actions no one knows whether they work.

We need to act harshly with those who stupidly became terrorists not only in recognition of the gravity of their actions but also perhaps to serve as a deterrent to others thinking along those lines  (not that I know whether that works either).  To do any different would make Canada a laughing stock on the international stage and call into question how we view terrorism.


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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