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Sins of the father – redux

It has been a while since I have had legitimate occasion to quote the great New York Yankee catcher and inveterate mangler of the English language, Yogi Berra, but today is one of those days where I really need to lead off (get the baseball analogy??) with him. Of all the phrases he uttered over his long career both as a player and as a coach the one that fits today’s theme is “Deja vu all over again”.

I also want to point out that this blog is a semi-repeat from a much earlier one. I suppose that is bound to happen when you write more than 1,000 posts on a fairly narrowly-prescribed topic over four years. The issue at hand is how in some cases people who become terrorists do so as if they are simply following in their father’s (or even mother’s) footsteps. In other words, some terrorists are born that way given the interests and obsessions of their first influencers: their parents. Think of the Khadr clan in Canada and you have a good idea what I am talking about.

Today’s father-son pairing is Tariq and Shareef Abdelhaleem. The latter is a convicted terrorist sentenced to life in prison for his role in the mid-2000s ‘Toronto 18’ plot, a series of bombs planned for the city’s core and a military base. At his sentencing hearing the judge ruled that the younger Abdelhaleem “exhibit(ed) no genuine remorse or insight into his behaviour and has so far not accepted responsibility for his dangerous actions.”

What about dad? According to a CSIS informant (full disclosure: I was the senior Islamist terrorism analyst at CSIS at the time of this massive investigation) Tariq Abdelhaleem assured his son that an attack on Canadian soil was “Islamically correct,” and if innocent civilians are killed, it is “their destiny.” By the way, the elder Abdelhaleem is an imam, a Muslim preacher.

And if that is not enough to show just what Mr. Abdelhaleem senior stands for, a recent article on the Arab News Web site claims that the now 70-year old preacher “justifies suicide bombings, advocates terror attacks and calls for global armed Islamist revolution… while living a privileged life in Canada, protected by free-speech laws.” The site goes on to say that his “followers number in the millions, to whom he spreads his bile on YouTube, Twitter and his own website” and as a result it has elected to add him to its “preachers of hate” series.

I must interject here that I find a lot of what is on the Arab News site questionable. The tone of the articles strike me often as apologetic to the Saudi regime and those who follow me know what I think of the Kingdom and its brand of Islam. Nevertheless, there is a pattern here. Tariq Abdelhaleem did not become a supporter of violent jihad yesterday. Despite his son’s incarceration he appears to have maintained his views a decade and a half later. What does this say about ‘deradicalisation”?

It says that deradicalisation, a term I am not a fan of, can only work (does it really work?) when the individual sincerely seeks a change in outlook. If Arab News is correct in its assessment Mr. Abdelhaleem is not at all interested in such a change.

The other more important point to all this is that Shareef never stood a chance. He was radicalised to Islamist extremism from a young age, fed by the man who happened to be his father. Don’t get me wrong: I am not absolving him of his crimes since we all have choices to make. Still it is not hard to see why and how he got to be a terrorist, thanks to good ol’ dad.

At a time when we have a tendency to blame “the Internet” and “social media” for radicalisation it is important to remember that each person has his or her own journey to terrorism. In some cases it starts at home and at a young age. If we have learned anything about radicalisation to violence over the past twenty years it is that there is no template so we might want to stop looking for what does not exist.

One final point: does Shareef have any younger siblings who may try to please their dad like he did? I sure as hell hope not!

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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