Terrorist zombies

With zombie movies and TV shows all the rage, the “science” and trivia surrounding the undead have gone from a niche cult that started with the George Romero films to almost mainstream pop culture.  Most people know that zombies eat brains, move slowly (except for the ones in World War Z) and are really hard to kill.  They die and seem to pop up again, bent on finding more brains to eat.

As with zombies so with terrorists.  There are countless cases of most wanted terrorists that have been killed (usually through drone strikes or bombing from on high) only to reappear shortly afterward in a video, laughing at their persecutors and mocking efforts to eliminate them.

I was reminded of this today when the RCMP laid terrorist charges on Calgary resident Farah Shirdon (see story here).  Shirdon was one of several Calgarians who left for Syria, where he was believed to have joined the Islamic State.  He is famous for two videos in which he plays a starring role.  In the first he is seen at a campfire tearing up his Canadian passport and threatening US President Obama.  In the second he grants an interview with and taunts the West in a cocksure way.

Shirdon was believed to have been killed sometime last year.  So why would the RCMP charge a dead man?

Simple.  There is no proof that he is dead.

The RCMP is being prudent in laying charges (they did so for another supposed dead Canadian extremist, John Maguire of Kemptville, a small town half an hour south of Ottawa) on Shirdon and others for a number of reasons:

  • charges may act as a deterrent for others contemplating travel to join terrorist groups;
  • should Mr. Shirdon return to Canada one day, the charges can be acted upon and he can be arrested;
  • the charges reflect Mr. Shirdon’s call for attacks in Canada – it would be odd not to lay them in this case.

The environment in Syria is a difficult one in which to gather intelligence, let alone evidence.  If Mr. Shirdon (or Mr. Maguire and others) were dead, obtaining proof in the form of a body or DNA would be a challenge.  Law enforcement and security agencies would be hard pressed to carry out their operations there.  In the absence of solid evidence of his death, these agencies are required to assume he is still alive (I am ignoring the possibility that either agency may in fact have intelligence supporting the belief that Mr. Shirdon is still among the living) and continue their investigations.

Furthermore, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the Islamic State faked Mr. Shirdon’s death to get security and law enforcement agencies to stop looking at him.  The terrorist group may think that once forgotten, Mr. Shirdon could re-enter Canada with false documentation and carry out terrorism as he has threatened.   I am not suggesting that this is likely, rather that the tactic cannot be dismissed.

In any event, what is the downside in laying charges?  If he is truly dead, there will be no need to find him and bring him to prosecution.  If he is alive, charges may discourage him from returning to Canada and we as Canadians will have one less terrorist to worry about.  If he foolishly does return, much of the legwork to bring him to justice is already in place.

In the movies I have seen, humans usually outwit zombies.  Let us hope that we continue to outwit their terrorist confreres.


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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