In the Western world we tend to separate out young criminals, or offenders, from older ones. There is probably a great deal of variation in what constitutes “young”: in Canada, the Youth Criminal Justice Act covers crimes up to the age of 18. Those convicted are treated differently than adults in keeping with scientific evidence that the maturing brain acts differently. Of course, when a serious enough crime is committed, youths can be tried as adults.
So what do we do with terrorism?
There is an assumption that terrorists are men in their 20s or 30s and are hence adults. This is not always the case. In what is still Canada’s most famous terrorist trial – the Toronto 18 back in 2006 – five of those arrested were classified as young offenders although one, Nishanthan Yogakrishnan, was tried as an adult. And we are seeing younger and younger Westerners heading off to join Islamic State, some as young as 14.
It should thus be clear by now that not all terrorists are adults. But we are still left with the question of what to do with someone who is technically a young offender and accorded, rightly in the eyes of the law, special handling. Should young offender terrorists be treated differently?
NB I am not getting into the whole Omar Khadr terrorist/child soldier debate again here. Suffice to say I have already pronounced on him several times. I will simply remind the reader that a year ago I wished Mr. Khadr well: the fact that he is engaged to be married seems to suggest that he is on the path to a normal life despite overwhelming challenges.
I recognise that a career in intelligence has skewed my perspective, but I nevertheless believe that anyone who commits an act of terrorism should be treated in the most serious way possible. I am not speaking of IS “lion cubs” who have been the subject of several propaganda videos and who appear to be no more than 10 years of age. I am referring, rather, to the 14, 15, 16 or 17 year old terrorist. Yes, there may be cognitive issues and questions on decision making, but terrorism is different and it perhaps requires special treatment. For the record I also support dealing with a 16-year old who commits murder as if that youth were an adult.
What should our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies be allowed to do? The Germans are faced with this very question right now as the internal security service seeks authority to monitor teens. Should CSIS and the RCMP be allowed to investigate a youth on terrorism grounds? Absolutely! It has to be done carefully and in my time at CSIS these were particularly sensitive investigations but they were still carried out. Terrorism is terrorism after all.
When dealing with young people other options should be considered such as intervention or mentoring. There is a consensus I believe that the younger a person the greater the chances of diversion or change. So these pre-criminal measures should of course be attempted. But if the youth is involved in attack planning or does not respond positively to intervention, harsher methods must be considered.
There is no magic switch that turns on at 18, separating an innocent child from a cold, calculating adult. Each case must be judged on its own merits. We will most likely see more terrorist children in the months and years to come, giving us much practice on the problem of terrorism and youth.