Maybe it is time to separate ideology from the concept of terrorism

A few weeks ago I found myself on a panel at a National Judicial Institute conference at the storied Algonquin resort in picturesque St. Andrews, New Brunswick along with Federal Court judge Richard Mosley and retired Ontario Superior Court judge Douglas Rutherford.  The three of us were asked to discuss the challenge of trying terrorism cases in Canada.  Not that we have had too many of these (thank God!) but the ones we have had have all been interesting to say the least.

The first Canadian brought to trial for terrorism offences in the post 9/11 era was Momin Khawaja, an Ottawa computer guy currently serving a life sentence for his role in a foiled fertiliser plot in the UK back in 2005.  Mr Khawaja was originally given ten and a half years for his crimes and the trial judge struck down the ‘motive clause’ used to describe terrorism offences in the Canadian Criminal Code as ” it could lead to racial profiling and might chill free expression within specific religious or racial groups.”  That judge was none other than Douglas Rutherford.

I remember at the time saying out loud “What is wrong with this judge?  Does he not understand that terrorism is different and must be treated differently under the law?”  After all, I was then a terrorism strategic analyst at CSIS and had worked on the Khawaja case.  I knew that what he was contributing toward would have been a catastrophic act of violence that could have killed and maimed hundreds.  How could this judge put future trials at risk by removing the crucial underlying motivation?

And yet I now find myself questioning my own deep convictions on this issue and not just because I have met Douglas and had a beer with him (and  he is a very nice man by the way).  I think there are two very strong arguments that support the consideration of doing away with having to prove motivation.

First and foremost, motivation is really hard to prove in most cases.  Unless we have the guilty party’s word for it (and that word is credible, not always a given with people like these), or a manifesto (Theodore Kaczynski – the Unabomber – or Norway’s Anders Breivik) or a cellphone statement (Michael Zehaf Bibeau – the killer of Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial) or a martyrdom video (Aaron Driver of Strathroy, Ontario) we are sometimes hard pressed to find out and may never know.  In order to lay terrorism charges  under section 83.1 of the Code the Crown has to be confident that it can show motive.  If it is not, it does not lay these charges.  This is what appears to be happening so far in the case of the Somali in Edmonton who ran down a police officer and four pedestrians a month ago: he has been charged with five counts of attempted murder and NOT terrorism (so far).

Secondly if we dispense with the motive necessity we can move beyond the debate as to why some murders are classified as terrorism (e.g. when a Muslim is involved, although the Edmonton case shows that this is not always true) and others not (e.g. when the shooter is white – Dylan Roof in South Carolina or the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock).  This has become a divisive issue that exacerbates racial and religious tension.  What if we were to call any mass shooting/attack terrorism by definition and not have to search for motive?

In any event, whether or not a person is ultimately tried on terrorist charges or not s/he is usually tried for murder, mass murder or planning to commit an act of mass violence.  The penalties for all these offences are severe and, if found guilty, the perpetrator is going to be put away for a long, long time.  I could be wrong here, but I do not think that in Canada a terrorist who kills is given a longer sentence than a ‘normal’ killer.

Maybe then we should put less emphasis on determining why a person decides to kill or plan to kill others.  Many will criticise me for suggesting, in a post 9/11 world, that terrorism is not important.  There is no truth to this of course: I would not have worked in counter terrorism for almost 20 years if I didn’t think it was important.  It is just that perhaps the difficulty in proving underlying reasons in some cases may be unnecessarily complicating things and drawing out court cases too long, subjecting the families of victims to painful delays.

As I noted above, I am just coming around to this way of thinking – I am not sold on it yet.  But it is worth considering if for no other reason than as a mental exercise.  I would really like to hear the thoughts of others on this issue.

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.

3 replies on “Maybe it is time to separate ideology from the concept of terrorism”

Calling a a violent action “terrorism” gets the fear juices flowing and makes great media. But I agree Phil. “Terrorism” is so ill defined – I think Professor Alex Schmidt found over 250 definitions. The fundamental “philosophical” question is whether so called acts of terrorist violence are different from other forms of violence. That is, whether a person who counsels, prepares or undertakes an act of violence to advance an ideology or more generally for ideological reasons has done something is a different class, warranting a different response, from some other form of criminal action.
Some countries used to use the phrase, “politically motivated violence”. If we as a society do wish to confer upon so called “terrorist” acts a special legal status, we might use that expression or perhaps, more generally, “acts of ideologically motivated violence”. You could offer two outcomes: guilt of a straight act of violence; or if motivation could be proven, ideologically motivated violence.
As for Sharif, I thought I read that Edmonton police said an Islamic State flag was found in the vehicl, that co-workers reported him for “genocidal beliefs” and that Sharif was an ISIS sympathiser. We do not need to rely only on confessions to draw a conclusion that a person subscribes to salafi-jihadi ideology and was likely motivated by it. Actions, other behaviors, what they post on social media, what they say to other people. Of course people have mixed motivations. But to show that an act was ideologically motivated, it does not need to be solely ideologically motivated.

Even if you manage to separate personal motives (grudge, mental health) from political ones (ideology), the two will always overlap because people join such organization for their own reasons. Besides, you don’t need to formally join an organization to act on its behalf.
So, I think the overarching question is less to do with whether we should incorporate motive or not and more to do with asserting where the start line for analysis lays.
Each country may draw that start line in a different place:
The more liberal the country, the further back they will go i.e. “your circumstances growing up were horrible, you never had a chance: rehabilitation”.
The more conservative the country, the more likely they are to target agency: “you chose to follow this ideology, you’re bad: jail”.
The mistake we make is sometimes doing one and sometimes doing another. We need to be consistent, but with the knowledge of the drawbacks of each approach.
Drawback of the liberal approach: little if any evidence it actually works and it is ludicrously expensive, both of which are political fodder for your opponents.
Drawback of the conservative approach: provides the perception of safety but actually makes things worse.

These are great points Ken but I am not sure how they resolve the question of what charges to lay. I agree that both extremes – liberal and conservative as you call them – have their weaknesses. Thanks for taking the time to comment! I hope you enjoy the other posts on this site.

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