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Once a terrorist, always a terrorist? The conundrum of parole

What level of risk are we willing to take when it comes to releasing those convicted of terrorism and who may re-offend?

In most Western judicial systems there is a sense, among many, that even the worst convicted criminals deserve a second chance…eventually. Of course there are always those who have the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ view, but this does not tend to be incorporated at the level of decision makers (ministers of justice or corrections, judges).

Yes, yes, the absolute worst of the worst (e.g. mass killers or those whose crimes are truly beyond horrific – think Paul Bernardo in Canada) will most likely never see the light of day again: even in Canada where ‘life’ rarely means ‘life’. NB apparently Bernardo will never see the outside of a prison.

If we are to manage a system where after a significant amount of time a given criminal is allowed to reintegrate into society and prove that s/he deserves such a release there must obviously be organisations and actors – parole boards, psychiatrists, victims’ representatives, etc. – who weigh in with their professional judgment to make the best decision possible.

Luckily, defence lawyers are not the sole ones to make that call. No offence to those in that metier but it is all too common for these to say of their clients that they do not pose a threat to anyone, have truly ‘changed’, and can be let go with nothing to worry about. That is, after all, their job both during trials and afterwards, to represent their clients to the best of their abilities and get the best sentences/conditions possible.

What, then, do we do with terrorists?

I’d wager that many are convinced that if anyone deserves the ‘throw away the key’ approach it is this lot. For terrorism is not just violent action, it is violence of the most terrifying kind, all in the service of some kind of cause. Terrorists, especially the Islamist variety, engage in tactics such as suicide bombings in which the perpetrator not only blows her/himself to smithereens but often does so while detonating a shrapnel-filled device which sends shards of metal through the bodies of innocent passersby in a market, or queuing at a bank, or walking along a beach. True depths of depravity we would say.

Should terrorists, whether they succeeded in their heinous plots or who were stopped thanks to good intelligence/law enforcement action, ever get out? Does anyone ever really abandon the causes for which they were ready to kill and die? How can we be sure that a given violent extremist is truly an ‘ex’ terrorist?

I suppose there are some terrorists, and I have indeed met a few, who have turned a corner. Whether by what they say or what they do we can be sure – or as sure as it is possible to be – that they are no longer bent on death and destruction and hence worth taking a chance on. Note that nothing is ever a 100% thing: on November 29, 2019 Usman Khan, who had been serving a sentence for a thwarted Al Qaeda (AQ)-inspired plot in the UK, stabbed five people (killing two) in Fishmongers’ Hall, at the northern end of London, just a few days after he had been graded ‘low risk’ by officials. 

All of which must make us ask: when is the risk of re-offending low enough to roll the dice on giving a convicted terrorist the open door?

And that brings me to Momin Khawaja.

The Ottawa software developer was arrested in March 2004 at Global Affairs Canada and charged with to seven offences under the Canadian Criminal Code’s newly minted terrorism section for his role in building a radio-frequency device, dubbed the “Hi-Fi Digimonster,” to remotely detonate bombs with his jihadis buddies in the UK. His trial began in 2008 and he was found guilty of five of the charges (true story: I was in a bar in The Hague with a UK friend when I got word of the verdict and let out a very loud – and very unCanadian – WOOHOO!!!). He was originally sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison, but the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled that penalty unfit, saying it “failed to reflect the enormity of the accused’s crimes,” and replaced it with a 24-year sentence.

Now he wants to be let out.

But the Parole Board of Canada’s appeal division has denied his parole request citing, among other issues, “taking responsibility for building electronic devices or funding and training terrorist organizations to advance their interests without a fulsome appreciation of how your role contributed to and facilitated the larger objectives of the terrorist organizations is problematic.”  Khawaja had claimed that no one was harmed, physically or psychologically, by his work on the detonator, adding he took responsibility for what he did. During his trial his defence noted that he was not a terrorist since he did not intend to harm civilians and was unaware of the British bomb plot.

Whatever (see comments re defence lawyers above).

Too bad, so sad: Khawaja remains behind bars.

In other words, the system in Canada is not convinced Khawaja has changed his mindset significantly (full disclosure: not only did I work on his investigation in 2004 but I spoke with him on two occasions and was not convinced either that he was a different man who had been convicted for his role in a terrorist plot that could have killed and maimed hundreds if not thousands). That is indeed rare as in my country most terrorists are released eventually: to the best of my knowledge all but one of the ‘Toronto 18’ are walking among us now.

Are terrorists THAT different? I have no idea as I am neither a criminologist nor a psychiatrist. They are, however, as discussed earlier, seen as the worst of the worst for the nature of their crimes and why they plan them.

As a consequence maybe we should keep them in jail longer. Maybe no level of risk is acceptable when it comes to terrorism. Just ask the families of Jack Merritt (25) and Saskia Jones (23), killed by Usman Khan.

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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