Let’s see if a new GOC ‘terrorism prosecution unit’ gets it right

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Most professionals need ongoing training to keep up with developments: terrorism briefings are long overdue for the PPSC.

This piece was published in The Hill Times on February 10, 2020

THE HILL TIMES — Terrorism is a hard crime to prosecute. The things that terrorists do are not so difficult: murder or attempted murder is relatively straightforward one would think. Either you killed or tried to kill someone or you did not. Simple, right?

On the other hand, proving the reasons WHY you chose to kill or try to kill someone is a completely different matter. People kill for all kinds of reason: passion, vendetta, a love for hurting others, etc. I am sure that at times there is no ‘reason‘: we often refer to such crimes as ‘senseless‘.

Terrorism unfortunately relies crucially on motivation. As the Canadian Criminal Code states, an act of terrorism is a serious act of violence perpetrated for ‘political, ideological or religious’ reasons. In the absence of any of these three motives we do not have an act of terrorism.

Terrorism may be a rare scourge, but it gets a lot of attention. We have to do this better to retain public confidence. I just pray that the plan includes a mix of specialists and former practitioners who are best qualified to provide the training.

We may disagree on whether a particular crimes was or was not terrorism but it is very difficult to discern an individual’s underlying motivation: unlike in the Harry Potter world we cannot read minds. Sometimes terrorists do us a favour and leave us a statement or manifesto in which they outline why they did what they did. In these instances we can more easily decide how to proceed with such crimes.

Canada is blessedly immune from the levels of terrorism seen in many Western European countries, let alone places like Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. As a result we have little experience in prosecuting terrorists in the courts. This is indeed a very good problem to have.

Hearkening back to our inability to agree on what terrorism is, there have been occasions in our country where cases went forward in which what some clearly felt was terrorism was not treated as such. The Alexandre Bissonnette shootings in a Quebec City mosque three years ago is one great example: he was charged (and pleaded guilty to ) murder, not terrorism, much to the chagrin of many (especially Muslims.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured on Jan. 27, 2020, on the Hill, has directed the ministers of justice and public safety in their mandate letters to ‘coordinate efforts to prosecute terror suspects to the fullest extent of the law’ and create a new Office of Director of Terrorism Prosecutions. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

I would guess that the Crown chose to go with murder instead of terrorism charges for the reasons already cited. The Crown does not go to trial to lose and murder was a foregone conclusion in this instance. What would have transpired if it had laid terrorism offences on Bissonnette and been unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was indeed motivated in this way? Would he have walked free?

There have been several high profile terrorism cases that the government has lost. One such case is that of Ayanle Hassan Ali who was acquitted of terrorism for a May 2016 attack on a Canadian Forces recruiting centre: the Crown strategy may not have been the best.

This may all be about to change!

Ottawa has announced a plan to create a new office specialising in terrorism prosecutions and it is hoped this will improve our country’s track record of holding accountable those who threaten public safety. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau directed the ministers of justice and public safety in their mandate letters to “coordinate efforts to prosecute terror suspects to the fullest extent of the law” and create a new office of Director of Terrorism Prosecutions.

I too am hopeful as something needs to be done. Terrorism may be a rare scourge but it gets a lot of attention. We have to do this better to retain public confidence. I just pray that the plan includes a mix of specialists and former practitioners who are best qualified to provide the training.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS and has provided terrorism awareness training for government over decades.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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