When is a terrorist group not a terrorist group?

Although most countries cannot agree on what constitutes terrorism, if we judge by the number of definitions that are out there, they do seem to do a better job at determining what a terrorist group is.  There are so-called terrorist listings in the US, the UN, the EU, and the UK among other jurisdictions.  We have one here in Canada as well and I am familiar with the process why which entities – and individuals – are listed, but more on that later.

At any given time there are dozens of groups that some see as terrorist in nature.  Public opinion does not carry the same weight as the decision by a government or political body however and that is a good thing since the decision to list a particular group as a terrorist organisation does have legal implications.

So what should we do when an ally asks us to take action against a purported terrorist group?

In the wake of the failed coup attempt in Turkey last week, the Turkish Consul General in Canada has asked the Trudeau government to list the Gulenist Movement (also known as the Hizmet) as a terrorist group.  The Turks have gone to great lengths to blame the military uprising on the Gulenists and have already labelled them terrorists in Turkey.  They have also demanded that the US extradite the group’s leader, Fetullah Gulen, who has been living in Pennsylvania for almost 20 years.

The Gulenists may be many things but terrorist is not among them.   Members certainly have a great deal of influence within many sectors of Turkish society but it is hard to see why we should believe the Erdogan regime’s shrill cries that the Gulenists, until very recently allies, have suddenly become extremists.  On the surface the group is big on education and secularism/interfaith dialogue. As with icebergs, there may be more lurking beneath the surface but I have found little to back Turkey’s claims.

As a result, I would be shocked  if the Canadian government decided to list the Gulenists as a terrorist entity.  The process is rather strict – here’s a quote from Public Safety Canada’s Web site:

The Anti-Terrorism Act provides measures for the Government of Canada to create a list of entities that:

  • have knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity
  • knowingly acted on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with an entity that has knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity

CSIS is one of the agencies that contributes reports on whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that a given entity has “knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity; or the entity is knowingly acting on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with, an entity involved in a terrorist activity.”  In the absence of those grounds, a group is not listed.

Most listings are no-brainers for the simple reason that most terrorist groups boast of their deeds and willingly accept the label of terrorism.  That is why it is so easy to list Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and others.  For some, however, the choice is less clear and the government must err on the side of caution for getting on the list means that property may be seized and charges may be laid.  It is for this reason that Canada, rightly so in my opinion, has not listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist entity to date.

Similarly I cannot see how the government could acquiesce to Turkey’s demand to list the Gulenists.  If solid information came to light then that could be used to help arrive at a decision. I suspect however that the request has much more to do with Turkish politics and Erdogan’s goal to rid himself of “this meddlesome priest” (Gulen is a Muslim cleric) than it has to do with real terrorism.

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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