How reliable are terrorist ‘defectors’?

For many people the solution to terrorism is quite simple.  Those who are fighting with groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State and others can be killed in airstrikes, drone strikes or armed combat.  Those who are captured alive can be turned over to local officials or brought home for trial where they can be found guilty and incarcerated for life.  Problem solved.

Oh if only life were that easy.

Many countries believe that everyone, regardless of the offence they committed, even a terrorist, deserves a second chance.  As a result we have created rehabilitation programs of various ilks in the hope that with the proper help a former criminal can revert to a normal human being and be re-integrated into society.  This makes sense on at least two  levels: keeping someone locked up is very expensive and returning that person to the community can boost collective prosperity and can benefit many, not just the offender.

The difficulty lies in determining whether these efforts really work.  I am not an expert in criminal rehabilitation and recidivism so I will not go there.  Instead, I will focus my remarks on terrorists and the likelihood that they can ever be released into open society without any residual risk.  Whether we call this de-radicalisation or disengagement or rehabilitation – all three terms do have different meanings and consequences – this will be glossed over for the sake of this blog.

There do appear to be instances where those found guilty of terrorist offences have successfully been liberated and have not gone on to re-offend.   This is a good thing and does provide some support for those who are responsible for these programs, while at the same time deflating some of the arguments of the ‘lock ’em up forever!’ crowd.  I do think that these efforts should continue provided they are done by those qualified to do so (alas, just as in ‘terrorism expertise’ there are some who are most probably winging it).

But, as a former intelligence analyst I have to insert a cautionary note if for no other reason then when someone does carry out a terrorist attack after having ‘graduated’ from a rehab course agencies like CSIS and the RCMP get the blame (“Why were you not following a known terrorist?!”).  My fundamental position is the following: there is no program, no matter how good it is, that can offer a 100% guarantee that an ‘ex’ terrorist will never re-engage in terrorism.  The risk is never zero, implying that we need to be able to live with a non-zero threat.  We do so in other fields of endeavour: should we be as welcoming with terrorism?  Good question.

There have of course been some high profile cases of ‘formers’ who go back to their violent extremist ways.  The most famous is that of the US/Jordanian agent who had been affiliated with Islamic State in Iraq, ‘rehabilitated from extremist views’, and killed seven CIA officers and a Jordanian military official in Afghanistan in late 2009.  Just this week a ‘recently defected’ Al Shabaab terrorist killed a Somali soldier and rejoined the group.

While these stories may not be everyday occurrences they do point to the inherent danger of believing terrorists when they claim that they no longer belong to their cause and can be trusted to revert to everyday life.  The bottom line is this: the only foolproof way to prevent someone from carrying out a terrorist act is to prevent that person from becoming a terrorist in the first place.  Any venture down that path, no matter how minor,  cannot be shown to have been erased completely.  We cannot peer into the minds of terrorists anymore than we can peer into the minds of anyone else so stop pretending we can predict future behaviour.

If I am correct the challenge is a huge one.  What level of possible future danger are we willing to accept?  That is a question I cannot answer.  It does, however, have a bearing on what to do with someone like Abu Huzayfa, the Canadian-IS returnee who may or may not have killed people in Syria and who now says he has renounced terrorism.

In the end I welcome attempts to work with truly remorseful extremists who are truly sincere in their desire to reject the hate and violence they once were part of (after paying back society for their crimes of course), including what my friend Mubin Shaikh seems to have done with Abu Huzayfa.  What I want in return is an acknowledgement that no plan is perfect and that no one can ever say that so-and-so represents absolutely no menace to society.  We need these efforts but we also need honesty, modesty and a lack of hubris in what can in fact be achieved.



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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