How to tell a terrorist from a tourist

Like a lot of people I enjoy traveling.   I had some amazing opportunities to see the world while I worked in intelligence and I have continued to voyage abroad in retirement.  There is so much that our planet has to offer and it is indeed a privilege to see it close up.

When I travel, I take certain steps and precautions.  I research the place I am visiting.  I highlight the sites I want to see.  I tend to buy a tour guide and tourist maps.  Sometimes I book a rental car.  I arrange for accommodation in advance.  I check the Global Affairs Canada Web site for the latest security update.  I have a plan more or less, even if I do leave some things to chance.  I bet a lot of people are like me.

In this vein, I wonder if terrorists are like me?

As reported by Stewart Bell of the National Post, Kadir Abdul of Toronto has been arrested and placed on a peace bond issued by the RCMP.  It is alleged that he traveled to Turkey to enter Syria and perhaps hook up with Islamic State.  None of these charges have been proven in court to date.

Mr. Abdul has refused to respond to the government’s allegations and that is his right.  Nevertheless, the RCMP has “reasonable grounds to believe that Abdul “may” participate in the activity of a terrorist group, travel to participate in the activity of a terrorist group and facilitate terrorist activity”.  I am not going to prejudge Mr. Abdul’s case, but I am also going to assume that the RCMP did not pick him out randomly from among 37 million Canadians either.  After all, “reasonable grounds to believe” are the basis upon which the police launches an investigation.  Ergo, there is something here.

If Mr. Abdul did NOT travel to Turkey to use that country’s border with Syria to join a terrorist group like IS, there should be some information to show that he is not lying.

Here are some obvious questions to put to Mr. Abdul and his legal team:

  • what was the purpose of his visit to Turkey?  As a Canadian needs a visa to travel to Turkey, what did he put in the “reason for visit” part of the application?
  • did he have a definite return date?
  • how did he pay for his airline ticket?
  • where was he going to stay while there – friends, hotels, wing it?
  • what sites/activities was he going to engage in while in country?  Did he have a guide book?  Maps?
  • does he have any friends/contacts in the country with whom he planned to spend time?
  • how long ago did he plan this trip?

If there are no answers to most of these questions either Mr. Abdul is a free spirited traveler or something isn’t quite right here.

There are also a few more questions one should ask in this case:

  • is it a coincidence that Mr. Abdul’s  lived in the same building as a dead IS fighter and that his traveling companion, Samuel Aviles, lived on the same street in Whitby (Ontario) as Kevin Mohamed, who was arrested in March and charged with terrorism (Mr. Mohamed is alleged to have traveled to Turkey to attempt to join Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra in Syria)?
  • did Mr. Abdul express any desire to join a terrorist group in the region on social media (Twitter, FaceBook, What’s App…)?
  • did Mr. Abdul show any other signs of violent radicalisation?
  • did his immediate circle (family, friends, workmates…) notice any worrying changes in recent months (rising intolerance, unhealthy obsession with events in the region…)?

We will learn more in the months to come about what the government knows in the case of Mr. Abdul.  His movements may have been completely innocent and the Mounties may have the wrong man.  Somehow, though, I have my doubts.  Let’s wait and see what unfolds.

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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