How do we distinguish serious from frivolous terrorist threats?

From time to time a bizarre case crops up in the world of terrorism, even in Canada.  We have all read of individuals who are portrayed as incompetent or cells described as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight” (that was the consensus on the Toronto 18 for a long time and may still be believed -erroneously – by some).  And there are those who see security intelligence and law enforcement agencies as all too keen to nail an extremism case by playing hard and fast with the rules and ethics, luring some poor dupe into their net.

For those that think this way, it should be easy to separate the real terrorists from the wannabes.  Real terrorists stand out and hapless individuals also are obvious.  It is a no brainer.  Or is it?

Case in point that of Dwayne Boissoneau of Thunder Bay in northwestern Ontario (NB I blogged earlier how Islamist extremism can be found in the least likely of places (Oh the places they’ll go!)).  He was convicted of contact with Islamic State extremists, including at least two Canadians, and even offered to carry out terrorism attacks in Canada (a short account of his case can be found here).

Now here is where it gets interesting.  His one-year sentence was reduced by a judge to six months after Boissoneau’s lawyer argued he had little insight into the seriousness of his actions.  It turns out he suffered from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, sustained a brain injury at age three, had a strained relationship with his family, had drug and alcohol addictions, never finished high school and was apparently easily led.  All in all a horrific life and one deserving of intervention at multiple levels.

And yet the question remains: should this background matter?  There is no question that we have to take mental competency into account in our criminal justice system as we do not want to incarcerate individuals incapable of having mens rea.  But do the facts here support the defence’s contention that Mr. Boissoneau was not serious about carrying out an act of terrorism?  In other words, did the RCMP pursue a case it should have known was more appropriate for the mental health system?

I am not an armchair quarterback and I am not a fan of second guessing decisions.  By all means look into matters when something goes disastrously wrong, but I am not sure that this case falls into that category.

Who is qualified to determine that Mr. Boissoneau was incapable of acting on his threats?  Who can guarantee that he would never take a shotgun or a knife into a Thunder Bay Tim Horton’s, yell Allahu Akbar and start firing/slashing?  Who would be the first in line to blame the Mounties for not doing due diligence with a man who clearly harboured violent extremist thoughts and who had clearly expressed an intent to act on those thoughts?

Investigating terrorism is hard.  Full stop.  Our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are swamped with information/intelligence from all sides.  This “drinking from a fire hose” is tough, as is determining the veracity of the incoming data.  To top it off, the vast majority of Islamist extremists are wannabes who never move on to action.  And yet they have to be looked at as they espouse violent ideologies and could, in the right circumstances, execute terrorist acts.  Furthermore, there is little to distinguish the wannabes from the real McCoys and, if my experience tells me anything, we are highly unlikely to come up with an easy and practical way to make that distinction, regardless of how much data we collect and what model/theory/framework we examine that data through.

So yes, the RCMP was justified in investigating Mr. Boissoneau and in laying charges since the threat was real.  And yes, Mr. Boissoneau needs serious help to treat a number of issues and should get that help.  But the two are not mutually exclusive.  Better to take preemptive action than to collect body bags.


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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