So now judges are radicalisation experts?

A Canadian judge’s job cannot be easy. You are expected to listen to a whole bunch of information, often contradictory in nature, from diametrically opposed sides (Crown and defence), and determine which side has made the better argument, all while keeping your knowledge and understanding of Canadian law in mind. Then you have to make a decision: guilty or not guilty, condemnation or acquittal. In the case of the former you then have to pick an appropriate sentence. At least that is what I think a judge’s task is: if I am wrong I am sure the Twitterverse or the blogosphere will let me know!

I am going to assume that those chosen to sit on the judicial bench are smart, capable people. They are often former lawyers who have worked with the law for decades and can leverage that experience into their decision-making. At the same time, they are neither omniscient nor expert in all fields of enquiry. That is why, I suppose, expert witnesses are called in to provide opinions on specialised fields.

In this vein I am a little puzzled about a comment made by the judge in a sentencing hearing for Rehab Dughmosh, a convicted Islamic State (IS)-inspired terrorist who attacked staff at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough (east of Toronto) in June 2017. She swung a golf club and a knife at employees while draped in an IS flag: she had also tried to travel to Syria in 2016 but was stopped in Turkey. That she was radicalised and saw herself as ‘inspired by IS’ is not in question.

Justice Maureen Forestell said Dughmosh’s mental illness played a central role in her crimes and “rendered her vulnerable to extremist beliefs.”
For the record, a doctor diagnosed Ms. Dughmosh with a major mental illness that was likely schizophrenia, but could be an unspecified anxiety disorder and said that her extremist beliefs provided “a more stable sense of self at a time when self-concept and personality are undergoing significant changes…she experienced hallucinations and delusions and expressed an intention to kill all non-Muslims and Muslims who side with non-Muslims.” As an aside, how are the ‘hallucinations’ and ‘an intention to kill non-Muslims and Muslims who side with non-Muslims’ linked? Lots of people with the latter desire do not suffer from the former illness.

Furthermore, how did the judge reach her conclusion? Based on the doctor’s expert testimony (and is this doctor an expert in Islamist extremist ideology?)? Or based on her own understanding of how people come to embrace violent worldviews? Where did she acquire that specialised knowledge? Inquiring minds want to know! Besides, if all and sundry were convinced that Ms. Dughmosh was mentally ill and, one supposes, not responsible for her actions, why was she not acquitted on that basis? Or is there something about a finding of mental illness and culpability that I don’t understand (yes that is a real question I am asking!)?

I am no psychologist/psychiatrist but in my experience this ‘excuse’ for terrorist activity is vastly overplayed. In the end we are not well served by yet another ‘you have to be crazy to want to join IS!’ assumption. The fact is that the majority of terrorists are NOT mentally ill. Did they have ‘mental issues’? Don’t we all? These do not explain away terrorism and strike me as a ruse by defence lawyers to gain acquittals.

I fear that cases of this kind are setting precedents that will be hard to ignore in the future. We owe it to ourselves, to society and to the justice system to ensure that real expertise is welcome in our courts and that those with a passing – or non-existent- knowledge of terrorism are not permitted to have a disproportionate affect on the outcome of trials. At least Rehab Dughmosh got a seven-year sentence. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.

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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