The need to look at ‘deradicalisation’ more closely

I see that Saad Khalid, a convicted member of the famous – by Canadian standards – ‘Toronto 18’ terrorist cell has been denied bail again by a Parole Board of Canada panel.  Mr. Khalid was found guilty for his role in the plot to detonate three fertiliser bombs in Toronto and at a Canadian military base back in 2006: he was one of two men unloading bags of ammonium nitrate from a truck into a storage facility in Toronto (there is an interesting video of the takedown as well).  He has been incarcerated in a few prisons since his conviction (he received a sentence of twenty years).

The announcement that Mr. Khalid would not be freed may strike some as cruel given that he has been undergoing counselling and ‘deradicalisation’ during his stay in prison (the Board ruled he needed more).  Surely a guy who, according to some, has expressed ‘remorse’ over his role in the terrorist plan should get a break, no?   Well, things are a little more complicated than that.  Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have spoken with Mr. Khalid on two occasions in the past since his conviction so I have my own ideas about his ‘remorse’: alas I cannot provide details on those interviews as they took place while I was still with the Canadian government and for privacy/classification reasons.  None of this precludes me making more general comments here.

My greatest concern centres on what we mean by ‘deradicalisation’.  For the sake of argument I will not dispute that Mr. Khalid does indeed feel regret over what he and his buddies were seeking to achieve a decade ago.  But I do have lots of questions about what process/counselling he has allegedly received.  These are mainly to do with:

  • Who is providing the counselling? What qualifications does s/he have?
  • How is Mr. Khalid’s ‘deradicalisation’ being evaluated? What are the metrics?  Is there a template?
  • How certain are those helping Mr. Khalid that his likelihood of re-offending are low? After all, is that not what is required in ‘normal’ bail hearings?
  • More fundamentally, what do we mean by ‘deradicalisation’ anyway?

I’d like to pick up on that last point.  It is my experience that deradicalisation means different things to different people.  At its heart, I suppose, it suggests that someone who has embraced violent extremist ideas and intentions can be convinced (cajoled, forced, encouraged, bribed…) to let them go.  It is, in essence, the undoing of the radicalisation process through which the person acquired those violent view and made them his own.  How in the hell do we do that?  It is not as if we have a Dumbledorean pensieve where we can extract individual thoughts.

Some would argue that we can undo the bad by questioning the basis for these beliefs and helping to substitute better ones that are not supportive of violent extremism.  Perhaps we can – I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist – but I would caution that there is a big gap between claiming we have succeeded and actually knowing we have.  Besides, who wouldn’t agree to therapy and say whatever it is that is necessary to regain one’s liberty?

Perhaps it  is time to reject this nebulous notion of deradicalisation and move towards two different ‘solutions’: disengagement and ‘re-radicalisation’ (not my term as we will see).

Disengagement is quite distinct from deradicalisation in that it does not claim to actually remove violent extremist mentality from an individual but stops at getting that person to agree not to act on it.  In this way it is both superior to deradicalisation since it relies on observable and measureable behaviours and actions rather than thought but is also inferior that it does not guarantee that that same person will not ‘re-engage’ at some point in the future if circumstances change.

‘Re-radicalisation’ is a term I picked up a year or so ago from David Kenning, an Irish counter-radicalisation ‘expert’ (I have already written on how that term bugs me), and refers to the effort to redirect passionate desires to right wrongs in ways that are both beneficial to society and may prove enough to satisfy the radical’s need to do something.  I like this a lot even if I am not convinced that everyone will be ok with handing out water bottles and raising funds for refugees caught in conflicts around the world where Muslims are suffering.

In the end I am nervous about what I see as the ‘deradicalisation industry’ that has sprung up in various places.  A lot of well-meaning (I assume) people have hung out their shingle as deradicalisation ‘experts’ and I for one have no idea what such an expert is.  The field is way too young to allow for independent, data-driven results to help determine who is valid and who is not.

So for the time being men like Saad Khalid will have to remain behind bars.  He did, after all, join a group that wanted to cause death and destruction.  Should he not have to pay for that?

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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