I am a parent and that means I worry about my kids. Not that I have any real reason to do so since my three are all grown up, on their own, doing well and appear for all intents and purposes to be well-adjusted, functioning human beings (thanks in no small part to their mother!). Yet I do worry about them still: that is the lot of a parent I guess.
At least one thing I don’t have to deal with is the fact that any of my kids joined Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
That is the situation of a mother in Montreal whose teen-aged daughter left Canada a few years ago, hooked up with IS in Syria, got married, got pregnant (twice) and is now in Kurdish custody. The daughter desperately wants to come home and the mother is doing what she can, under tremendously difficult circumstances to get her back (I heard an interesting interview on CBC’s The Current this morning between host Anna Maria Tremonti and Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard on this story, which will also air on CBC television this Sunday).
Not surprisingly, in light of my background in security intelligence, including 15 at CSIS, as well as my research into Western foreign fighters with IS, I have mixed reactions to this story. As a parent I feel for the mom, I really do. One of the hardest things I had to do while at CSIS was to interview the parents of deceased sons who had run off to join terrorist groups and died fighting for them (for the record we did these interviews to gain insight into why those young men had made such disastrous decisions and to determine if there was any threat to Canadian public safety from those in their networks, so yes we were completely in the right to do what we did). It was heart-wrenching, as a parent, to hear and see how these Canadians’ lives had been turned upside down and how they grieved over the realisation that their sons were not only to be known henceforward as terrorists but that their parents would not even get to bury their bodies.
On the other hand, I don’t feel for the kids themselves. They may cry and sob that they made a huge mistake, that they didn’t know what they were getting into, that they just want to put it all behind them and get back to a normal life, but there are a few complicating factors to take into consideration:
- in our world of social media it is simply impossible that they were ignorant of what they were joining. No, they made a conscious decision to hook up with a savage terrorist group, end of story.
- we often have only the offspring’s word for how they are feeling and what they did while with IS. Spoiler alert: people lie, even our kids. We would be naive as a society to take what they say and post at face value. Journalists are very good at reporting their version of events but must acknowledge that intelligence agencies like CSIS can have, and usually do have, a lot more information on what really happened in theatre.
- Leaving Canada to join IS is a criminal offence and must be taken seriously.
Michelle Shephard said at the end of the interview that how we respond to returnees will have a major impact on the potential next generation of Canadian foreign fighter jihadis. I could not agree with her more. I am not an ogre and I do not believe that every returnee is a time bomb waiting to go off (in the case of Islamist extremists you can interpret that phrase literally and figuratively). But some are and some will serve as models for others contemplating similar life choices (there is also the possibility that they could deter others from making the same idiotic move they did but that is fraught with complications, as I discussed in my book). Our default position must be, at a maximum, to lay charges when they come back or, at a minimum, to investigate them to see whether they do pose a clear and present danger and in order to gather evidence to lay charges where warranted.
A spokesperson for the family calls the young Montreal woman a ‘victim’. This is a travesty of the term. Her mother is a victim. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds and Yazidis killed, tortured, raped and brutalised are victims. She is a perpetrator who made a conscious decision to join IS and has now had a change of heart. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with realising you made a mistake: it’s just that choices have consequences and seeing IS as a viable life option should have serious ones.
To do anything short of treating this woman as a criminal will send a very clear message to all young (and not so young) Canadians that electing to become part of a terrorist group does not entail any serious repercussions. And THAT is a message I do not think we want to send, do you?
I do hope that all works out for the woman, her mother and her community. I hope that her two kids can grow up without the stigma of having a jihadi as a mother and that they are not ostracised. At the same time we cannot just ignore what she willingly did with her life as if nothing happened. The millions around the world who have suffered at the hands of terrorists demand nothing less.