How do we know when a terrorist is lying?

One thing I find fascinating is the science of lie detection. There is a lot of research out there about which tools can pick up on an attempt to avoid the truth, ranging from eye movement (saccades) to vocabulary use.  As a former intelligence analyst I had to undergo periodic lie detector tests.  They were certainly uncomfortable and some doubt their usefulness but professionals I talk to see these devices as tools only and not infallible instruments.

I have also read that there are ways to “defeat” these tests, most of which owe more to junk science and collected wisdom than reality.  But I have also read that those whose minds work along a certain way can perhaps show no detectable signs when they are in fact lying.

I would tend to put terrorists in that category, and, more specifically, Islamist extremists.

So while I am not an expert in these techniques it stands to reason that if you are ideologically committed to a certain action and furthermore sincerely believe that what you are doing is right, if not divinely mandated, you may be able to “compartmentalise” the truth and evade detection from those trying to stop you.

It is my experience that Islamist extremists tend to exhibit a few common behaviours, some of which strike us as at a minimum counterintuitive and at a maximum beyond our  understanding of human nature.  Some of these are:

  • people radicalised to violence and engaged in attack planning do not seem to care if their ideology and plans have been detected.  All too often, these terrorists shrugged off CSIS or RCMP efforts.  Some actually brag of having received so much attention – a badge of honour if you will.  Those who have had their Twitter accounts deactivated for instance, only to recreate them within minutes, are in competition with each other (“Hey, my account has been taken down 15 times!”  “Yeah?  Well mine has been cancelled 20 times!”).  This should strike us as very odd: after all, most criminals would change their plans if they knew the police was on to them.  Then again, contrary to what we read, terrorists are NOT ordinary criminals
  • tied to this is a conviction that what they are doing is divinely sanctioned.  These extremists really believe that they are doing Allah’s work and that He will protect them from harm.  Some will even post messages on social media after they have evaded scrutiny writing that “Allah blinded” those agencies (CSIS, RCMP) that were following them.  I suppose it goes like this: If I believe God is on my side, I can defeat anyone who tries to get in my way
  • groups like Islamic State encourage members and wannabes to lie, cheat, steal and kill, despite the unfortunate fact that all of these behaviours are un-Islamic and vehemently condemned by real Muslims.  Extremists justify these acts by saying that the victims are non-believers and infidels and that it is thus ok to do things a Muslim would not normally do.  It should come as a surprise to no one then that extremists will lie to family, friends, religious leaders and authorities, none of whom, Muslim or not, they see as “true” believers.

This is exactly what happened in Canada recently with Aaron Driver and in 2014 with Martin Couture-Rouleau.  Both were converts to Islam that veered to extremism and both were well known to authorities.  And both maintained that they had no intention of acting on their extremist beliefs shortly before they did just that.  Driver was foiled: Couture-Rouleau was not.  The fact that no one saw through their deception is no one’s “fault”.  It is not easy to know when apparent sincerity is a ruse.

When we know that someone is violently radicalised we need to proceed on the assumption that that person is still radicalised, irrespective of any treatment s/he has received, until proven otherwise.  How long should that assumption stay in place?  It is impossible to tell and each case will be different.  Absent that assumption, extremists will continue to dupe well-intentioned people.

All of this takes money and resources of course.  We may eventually develop a method to determine who is actually telling us the truth when s/he says that the ideology no longer has a hold on them.  I can only imagine how difficult it will be to create such a tool and I am not holding my breath.  In the meantime, we have to ensure that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies have the resources to monitor these threats.

What if someone is telling the truth? What if they have actually cast the ideology that had a grip  on them into the garbage bin where it belongs?  A lot of people are fascinated in this possibility of “de-radicalisation”: is it possible?  There are many efforts out there, but effective approaches have not been adequately measured.  In any event a smart move would follow the old Cold War nuclear weapon approach: trust, but verify.  We cannot afford to take these extremists at their word.

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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