I’m sorry I joined a terrorist group. Can I go home now?

Are we in the West suffering from collective naivete?  Are we ignoring an obvious threat to public safety?  Are we failing to understand that there are citizens among us who can do real harm?

I am referring of course to the phenomenon of ‘foreign fighters’, Westerners who left of their own free will to join a terrorist group abroad such as Islamic State or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab or an affiliate of one of the above, some of whom apparently want to come home now. Some are even suggesting that we give these people a job and a flat (that’s UK speak for apartment) upon their return.

Is this insane?  I happen to think so.  Call me a hard-edged, soulless Neanderthal but should we not view these individuals as a threat to our safety?    My default position is that anyone who elected to belong to a listed terrorist entity – which, by the way, all the groups cited above are – must be seen as a continuing menace to society until proven otherwise.  Simply put, they broke the law.  In Canada at least the decision to leave the country to join a heinous group like IS is a criminal offence.

Luckily for us many who made that choice will die and thus no longer represent a threat.  Some, however, will survive and a portion of those will seek to come home.  A portion of that portion will plan acts of terrorism or radicalise others.  Another group will come home regretful, disillusioned, disgusted.  The question remains: which one is which and what should we do with the latter?

For some the answer is easy: lock ’em up and throw away the key.  There are, unfortunately, challenges in doing that whether or not we all agree that is the best approach.  Evidence is hard to collect in places like Syria and Iraq and the Crown in Canada isn’t in favour of proceeding with court cases where guilty outcomes are all but guaranteed.  I will leave aside the whole debate about rehabilitation and ‘de-radicalisation’ as I have covered those before.

Then there are the women and kids.  We are hearing more and more about young(ish) females who left Canada and other countries to join IS.  Once there it is next to impossible for authorities to determine what they did: kill? injure? aid and abet others? stay home and have kids?  The need to collect evidence to be used in court is still a problem in these cases as well.

What bugs me, though, is the campaign by some (lawyers, families, some journalists) to paint these women as victims.  The Toronto Star’s Michelle Shepherd has a piece this morning on a 22-year old from Montreal who left for IS with a teenaged friend back in 2014.  She is now in Kurdish custody and wants to come home, saying she is sorry for what she did.

Let’s unpack this, shall we?  A Canadian makes a conscious decision to leave our country to join what EVERYONE knows is a terrorist group, arrives in Syria and suddenly realises that doing so was not a great idea?  And that makes it ok? Her lawyer says she is a ‘victim’.

Victim??  I’ll tell you who are the victims in all this.  The thousands of Yazidi girls torn from their families, forced to marry IS terrorists and raped.  The gays and lesbians thrown off buildings to their deaths.  Those beheaded. Those burned alive.  Those whipped and beaten for doing ‘un-Islamic’ things like listening to music.  THOSE are the victims, NOT a stupid teenager who made a bad choice.

What is next?  Sorry m’lord, I got real drunk and got into my car and killed that kid but I am really agonising over what I did – can I go home now?  Why in heaven’s name would we see the bad choices to join terrorist groups as something we can ignore and excuse?

I have no idea whether this particular 22 year old poses a threat or whether she truly regrets her foolish decision.  From a security intelligence and law enforcement standpoint this matters since we cannot waste time and resources on non-threats.  I also do not reject totally the remorse that some may feel.  But we have to see these people – young, innocent, naive – for what they are: individuals who joined terrorist groups.  We may not be able to charge them all and maybe we shouldn’t.  We must, however, stop seeing these idiots as victims and stop feeling sorry for them.  They took part in a subhuman campaign to cause deaths and misery to millions.  I for one am not willing to let that go so easily no matter how many tears these ‘victims’ shed.


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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