Should we mourn the death of terrorists?

In all my time as an intelligence analyst I had some amazing opportunities and worked alongside some truly outstanding men and women.  We collectively did our best to gather and analyse intelligence with the constant view to providing the best advice we could to Canadian decision makers.  I may be biased but I think we did a pretty good job of that with the resources we had been given.

On two occasions, however, I found the task before me to be very emotional and very difficult.  It was at those two times that I spoke with the mothers of two Canadians who had left our country to join terrorist groups and who died abroad while fighting as terrorists.  I listened to their stories – how they struggled to understand what their sons were changing into and how they were tormented with guilt over not seeing their offspring’s radicalisation for what it was and not acting sooner.  They live with the memory of their children who were not always terrorists but also with the label that they are the mothers of people who did become terrorists.  I will refrain from naming those two women out of respect for their privacy.

What are we to make of cases like these?  Should we mourn the deaths of their sons?  Should we condemn those same sons for what they did?  What is a reasonable reaction?  The issue has come up once again with the news that Windsor native Tamim Chowdhury, the alleged mastermind behind a heinous attack on a cafe in Bangladesh and the self-styled leader of Islamic State in that nation, was killed in a police raid.  Given the fact that there are over a hundred Canadians fighting abroad with a variety of terrorist groups there are bound to be more stories  like these.

So, how should we react?  My answers may come across as crass and unfeeling to some but there are good reasons not to see these deaths as tragedies.  These reasons are several.  First we have to accept the fact that people who die fighting for terrorist groups, whether or not they are killed in the process of killing others (such as Toronto’s Mahad Dhorre who died in a suicide attack in Mogadishu in 2o13), chose to be there and chose to act.  The notion that these individuals are brainwashed or coerced is a myth.  Terrorism is a choice and a rational, albeit an ill-considered, one. Whatever factors led to this particular decision are in effect irrelevant to the fact that an individual decided to take a path that is both dangerous and to be condemned.  In this light, we cannot look upon these deaths as tragedies in the same way we look at the senseless deaths of innocent civilians in the insanity of war or terrorism.  Terrorists are conscious actors and we must reject their acts irrespective of the backgrounds of the perpetrators.

Furthemore, and this will really strike some as ruthless, a dead terrorist is a terrorist that no longer needs to be investigated or followed.  Our agencies are already stretched to the max with trying to keep up with the cases they have.  When one dies they can redeploy resources elsewhere.  It is a case of simple math.

Dead terrorists can do no further damage.  Innocent people are no longer at risk of dying in a terrorist attack at the hands of someone who can no longer harm them.

Additionally, by mourning and lionising dead terrorists are we not in a way contributing to terrorist propaganda?  Groups like IS always follow up the “martyrdom” of one of their own with a video statement extolling the virtues of another “lion of Islam”.  There is already enough garbage out there on social media: we should not add to it.

And yet I cannot help but feel for those left behind: mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, communities.  Even if the deceased was a terrorist who took part in atrocious acts, he is still dear to their hearts.  His passing still leaves an unfillable hole in their lives.  Not recognising that would be truly inhuman.

I suppose that we can acknowledge that somewhere in the body of a terrorist was once a normal kid who made the wrong decision somewhere along the way.  We can unanimously condemn the acts for which he is responsible but see the pain in those who remain.

We really need to stop seeing terrorists as victims.  They are not and viewing them as such only insults the memories of true victims, those who suffer because of the actions of terrorists.  At the same time, we must keep a little sympathy for the moms whose little boys made bad choices and are forever lost to them.

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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