I was a teenaged terrorist

When I was in first year of high (secondary) school – grade nine as we call it (why is it that I cannot get a BareNaked Ladies song out of my head?) – I did something really stupid.  I was about to bus home from a Friday night dance when I decided that it would be a cool idea to throw a lit match into a garbage bin. The paper in the receptacle caught fire and I panicked, running like hell down a side street.  I soon heard the horn of an approaching fire truck but was not caught and did not have to pay for my inexplicable act of idiocy.

We all do stupid stuff when we are teens – I even thought of shoplifting a chocolate bar once but chickened out – and thankfully the vast majority of our actions are of no real consequence: after all my incident with the match did not lead to the Great London (Ontario) Fire of 1973.  Perhaps this is a phase teens go through and I have read of studies by scientists that the brain of a sixteen-year old may actually lack the structures necessary to make good decisions.  Most of us grow up and mature and we can put the follies of youth behind us.

But what if one of the stupid things you did when you were 18 was travel to Iraq and/or Syria and join a terrorist group like Islamic State (IS)?

The question is not irrelevant as Canada and many other countries are faced right now with the reality that a small, but significant, number of our citizens made that very move, and many of them were teens when they left our borders.  A large percentage are dead, others have likely moved on to other conflicts but some will come home.  What do we do with the latter cohort?

This is indeed a dilemma.  The mere fact that they signed up with a listed terrorist entity is a criminal offence and hence they should be charged.  Many, including myself, have argued however that there are significant and not easily overcome challenges to doing this (collecting evidence in a war zone, relying on iffy partners, having a strong enough case to go to court).  Some we will have to monitor to see what level of threat they pose, if any.  In addition, there is a lot of talk about ‘rehabilitating’ the returnees, some of whom will be coming back disillusioned at what they witnessed, although I caution against taking all their stories and denials at face value.  In any event, Canada is woefully behind the curve in developing and administering such programmes, although we are beginning to make moves in that direction.

It may be that for very young people the chances of a return to normalcy is higher than for older ones.  I have no idea if this is true and will leave it to psychologists and psychiatrists to weigh in.  There is another argument to be made, though, that irrespective of what these youth actually did in Iraq/Syria (even if they ‘just drove the bus’) they should be held accountable for what has been called a ‘crime of complicity’ (listen to a fascinating CBC Sunday Morning piece with Michael Enright on this issue).  I find it curious that we have gone to great lengths to locate, charge and prosecute, to this day, those that took part in the Holocaust either for actively participating in crimes against humanity or standing by and doing nothing yet some are calling for foreign fighter returnees, especially the young ones, to be treated carefully and eased back into Canadian or Western society. After all, if IS was not guilty of heinous human rights violations, even if these were not on the scale of the attempted annihilation of the Jews in World War II, then what else would we call mass rapes, shootings, beheadings, etc?  Those who tell us they did not sign up for that when they traveled to Syria nevertheless surely stood by mutely while others took part in these atrocities.

I agree with my friend Dr. Lorne Dawson that some returnees – but not the 1 in 10 that will plan terrorist acts here – are fearful of their reception and worried about their futures.  I think we can all agree that putting ‘traveled to Syria to join IS’ on your CV is probably not going to get you a job.  But what should the consequences of their decision be?  There must be some form of punishment, if for no other reason than to deter (maybe) others from making equally stupid choices in the future.  And yes we should look into getting them back into society if for no other reason that returnees who don’t succeed could re-offend someday.  In the end, their time with a terrorist group cannot and must not be dismissed.

My youthful indiscretions were pretty minor (and I really hope that the statute of limitations has expired in light of my well overdue confession above!).  I don’t think those who fought with IS are in the same category.

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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