What if some terrorists cannot be “saved”?

The debate over what to do with terrorists is neverending.  Positions range from one extreme to another, from “kill them all”  to “maybe it’s our fault they are they way they are”.  I would hope that by now we have learned beyond any doubt that there is no one cause, one driver, one explanation for terrorism and that there is no one solution either.  This violent phenomenon is so complex and so individualised that it cannot be reduced to simple models.

For the record, I have no qualms about killing terrorists. If you choose to join Islamic State and participate in that group’s subhuman activities (or stand by while others carry them out) and happen to die in an airstrike or in battle I have no tears to shed and no sympathy for your death (although I  do feel for the shattered families left behind).  I also have no hesitation in sentencing terrorists found guilty in trials to very, very long sentences.  Yes, I know that prison does not usually act as a deterrent (criminological studies have shown this) and that such will do little if anything to prevent someone else from venturing down that path,  but individuals who choose to kill and maim their fellow citizens all in the name of a “cause” represent a very serious danger to society and must be kept locked away to prevent them from acting on their ideology.

Prison, however, is not the easy solution it may strike some.  Incarcerated terrorists can continue to radicalise other inmates, some of whom may be released and go on to carry out attacks.  Furthermore, like it or not, our correctional system seeks, not always successfully it turns out, to turn prisoners into better citizens by the time they complete their sentences through rehabilitative and educational programmes.

For terrorists this implies the need to develop efforts to deal with the ideology that led them to become terrorists in the first place. So while no one is really sure what works and no one with any serious knowledge of the terrorist mindset these days pretends that deradicalisation is a sure-fire cure (those in the know speak instead of disengagement), we nevertheless have to try something that goes beyond the standard toolset we use with all inmates.  To be fair, we are still trying to figure out what that toolset looks like but it seems obvious that doing nothing is a bad option, even if it feels good (“let the bastards rot”).

What, then, do we do in cases where rehabilitation and/or disengagement are unlikely?  How should we treat those that are for all  intents and purposes untreatable?  I think that Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik may fit this description (recall that Breivik slaughtered 69 young people on an island outside Oslo after having killed eight more with a car bomb in the Norwegian capital).  According to recent reporting, Breivik has stated that he is in fact becoming more radical in prison.  Now it may very well be that the mass murderer is just saying this to gain better conditions in jail – he claims that his cell is inhumane, an odd thing to state given the very humane Norwegian treatment of its prisoners – but it does raise the interesting question about whether something more can be done for him.

I do not know whether anyone competent has tried to talk to Breivik to get him to ease his obsession with the xenophobic, pseudo Knights Templar ideology that led him to kill those youths, but is it not possible that Breivik is beyond help?  Perhaps we should try and perhaps it is incumbent on us to give Breivik at least that much attention, but perhaps also he is so far gone that any effort would at a minimum be a waste of time, money and resources and at a maximum feed his ego and just make him worse.  Can anyone guarantee that at some (distant) future point in time Breivik will represent no threat to Norway?  No, they can’t.

Maybe we just have to accept that some people are broken, twisted and irredeemable.  In light of Breivik’s crime it is hard to argue that he should ever see the outside of a cell.  There is even a good case to be made for capital punishment (after all there is no question that it was he that killed those people), although this is not something possible under Norwegian law.  He does deserve, as a human being (albeit a despicable one) a minimum of care and standard treatment.  To justify more than that would take one hell of an argument.

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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