Terrorism is a choice – even for the disadvantaged

Wouldn’t it be great if the whole were always the sum of its parts?  That way, if we could ensure that we have all the ingredients and understand how they go together we could reliably predict what the end state would be.  If only life were like math: 2 + 3 + 4 = 9 and will always equal 9.

We seem to think that this kind of equation works for terrorism too.  A terrorist is the sum of his or her own life experiences (actually we all are, aren’t we?).  If we could determine the factors that contribute to the makeup of a violent extremist, then all we have to do is to watch for those factors, measure  them and voila! we have our predictive (or at least explanatory) model.  If such a programme were available I cannot tell you how beneficial this would be for our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies tasked with counter-terrorism duties.

Except that it doesn’t work that way.

I thought of this as I read the biography of the convicted Larmond terrorist twins in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen (by the way, kudos to Gary Dimmock and Kenneth Jackson for this work!). Carlos and Ashton had a truly horrific upbringing: an absent father, rape, poverty, physical abuse and a life in drugs.  There was so much that could have been and should have been addressed somewhere in our social services system and little doubt that this kind of childhood and teenaged years had a catastrophic effect on the brothers.

Now that they are convicted Islamist extremists – Carlos was arrested at the airport trying to join Islamic State and Ashton was found guilty of recruiting for the group only because his own travel plans had been skewered – we are left with trying to figure out why they became so.  And, given their terrible youth and what was done to them, we have the answer, right?

No we don’t.  The reasons why we are still in the dark are multifold.  First, there is no linear relationship between life experiences and tragedies and terrorism.  Not all terrorists have unfortunate pasts and not everyone with an unfortunate past becomes a terrorist.  There is far too much variability in the process to reduce it to a simple set of factors.

More importantly, terrorism is a choice.  It is a bad choice but it is a choice nonetheless.  No one forced the twins to embrace IS and seek to become cannon fodder for the group.  Yes, they were undoubtedly influenced but in the end they consciously decided that this was the life for them.  Again, their backgrounds had a role to play but it does in all cases anyway, terrorist or not.

We can feel sorry for Carlos and Ashton and we can do everything possible to ensure that the brutality visited on them does not get repeated.  But we cannot dismiss their decision to embrace terrorism and seek to join up with a band of extremists that want to kill us and destroy our way of life (whether or not they have much chance of success in meeting their goals – I happen to think the odds are nil – is irrelevant as it is the intent that counts).  They need to be held accountable for their actions and that is why they are in prison.  They were once victims of circumstances: they are now keen to make others the victims of their ideology.

I suppose we want to see terrorists through the lens of victimhood since we have a great deal of difficulty understanding why people do the things terrorists do.  We want to see their acts as an inevitable result of factors beyond their control and people who are manipulative in nature.  Doing so does not get us any closer to a full grasp of the phenomenon however and actually puts us in a weaker position to deal with it because we refuse to accept that terrorists are rational actors.

So yes, get the Larmonds help for the various ills they have, but no, do not forgive them the decisions they freely made.



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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