One person’s terrorist is another person’s son?

There are few terms that rank up there with terrorism when it comes to emotional responses and controversy. The word is associated with one of the most serious crimes humans can commit: I think that ‘genocide’ is maybe the only worse act we are capable of.

And while there are multiple legal definitions around the world there appears to be a weak consensus that terrorism has to have certain elements to distinguish it from other forms of serious violence (i.e. murder and attempt to murder). Among these characteristics are:

  • the act has to target innocent civilians (soldiers who die in battle at the hands of terrorists are not the victims of terrorist acts as far as I am concerned);
  • the act has to be perpetrated for some larger cause or to send a message;
  • the motivation for the act has to be more than garden-variety criminality: religious, ideological, political, etc, and;
  • the very nature of the act has to instill a sense of fear in the greater population and/or seek to coerce a body (government, group of people) to take action or grant concessions it would not otherwise take.

For some of my readers there are undoubtedly more factors but this should suffice for today. It is important to note that not all will be clearly set out or visible. This is especially true for the third one – the motive. Sometimes a particular act will easily satisfy the other three – it will target civilians, it will cause fear and it seems to be sending a message – but the actual underlying driver may be opaque. In cases like these can we call it terrorism?

Well, according to the father of Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who shot up a Quebec City mosque in January 2017, killing six and wounding many others, the answer is no. Raymond Bissonnette has criticised the Canadian government for calling his son a ‘terrorist’, adding that this label has ‘greatly increased’ the danger to his family. In Mr. Bissonnette’s version of the events his son had no terrorist connection “nor any particular ideology.” For the record, Alexandre was not charged with nor found guilty of terrorism under the Canadian Criminal Code, a matter which in itself proved to be controversial (‘are only Muslims capable of terrorism in Canada?’ asked some).

The Canadian Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale responded to the elder Bissonnette’s complaint by saying “He must bear the consequences of his conduct. His intent was to instill fear and terror in the hearts of Canadians.”

So what is all this about? Are we back to the unhelpful phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ (not that anyone I know sees the younger Bissonnette as a ‘freedom fighter’, although the Christchurch (New Zealand) terrorist did cite Alexandre as inspiration in his manifesto in which he said he was fighting to prevent the ‘Great Replacement’ of white people in the Western world). Is it important to continue to call him a terrorist despite the lack of legal support?

I fall somewhere in the middle on these questions. I do not think that an act of terrorism depends crucially on the background, faith or ethnicity of the terrorist: anyone can be a terrorist. What is important to me is the ideological impetus, i.e. there has to be one. If the motive for the crime is purely criminal it is not terrorism in my books. The thought process behind the act may be opaque, but there has to be one.

It gets trickier when it comes to an act committed out of hate. Many nations, including my own, have hate crime statutes. I believe that all terrorism is some form of hate but not all hate is a form of terrorism: vandalism, for example, can constitute a hate crime but it sure isn’t terrorism.

In the end I do think that the crimes committed by Alexandre Bissonnette are indeed terrorist in nature, irrespective of what he is in jail for. It has taken me a while to reach this conclusion. At the same time I feel for his father: he did not create the man his son became (to the best of my knowledge anyway) and I can scarcely imagine the impact his son’s crimes have had on him and his family (‘Oh so you’re the terrorist’s father, are you?’).

Does it really matter what we call this? For some it appears to and they have every right to make their case. Still, regardless of what we call it – terrorism, hate, murder – the result is the same. Lost lives, shattered lives. What matters now is that we as Canadians continue to support the survivors and their families and do what we can to prevent future tragedies from unfolding.

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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