When a terrorist act occurs there are a number of inevitable events that follow immediately afterwards. The attackers are called “cowards” (while those who leave IEDs may be described so, can anyone really call a suicide bomber a coward?). There is a usual demand for vengeance and retaliation. And the head of state promises that “we will not rest until the criminals are brought to justice”.
Sometimes of course, there are no perpetrators to bring to justice. This happened last October when, over the span of three days, two separate attacks took place in Canada, one in Ottawa and the other outside Montreal. In both instances, the terrorists acted alone and subsequent investigation did not turn up any accomplices. As both men died during their attacks (as did two victims, one in each attack), there was no one to arrest and prosecute.
In light of the enormity of terrorist attacks and their lasting effect on society (at least Western society: it is less clear whether a country where terrorism is an all too familiar event – Iraq, Syria, Pakistan – sees these acts through the same lens), the agencies tasked with investigating them (in Canada CSIS and the RCMP) will often devote significant resources over long periods of time to locate and neutralise those behind these heinous acts. And sometimes these periods of time are long indeed. It took the world’s pre-eminent military-intelligence community – the US – a decade to find and kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, thus bringing some degree of closure to 9/11.
Three events brought the issue of lengthy investigation to light over the past two weeks. As it turns out, the cases refer to attacks one, two and three decades ago. Let’s have a look.
- On September 1, the RCMP announced that it has laid charges against a Syrian intelligence officer believed to have been involved in the torture of Maher Arar in 2001 (see story here). The RCMP has issued both a Canada-wide and an Interpol arrest warrant against George Salloum. Whether or not he is ever seized and tried, his identification is important.
- On August 26, Saudi Arabia announced that a suspect in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in eastern Saudi Arabia was being held in custody (see story here). Ahmed al-Mughassil, the head of Saudi Hizballah, was apprehended in Beirut and extradited to Riyadh (for what it is worth I must confess that I still think the bombing was carried out by Al Qaeda and not Hizballah).
- On September 6, a French frogman apologised for his role in the attack on the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand in 1985 (see story here), in which a Portuguese photographer was killed. Two French DGSE (the French foreign spy agency) agents were arrested soon after the attack and served lengthy sentences in prison.
This news underscores that investigations can take decades. Even if the primary focus shifts as competing higher priorities take away resources, the file is never officially closed. We should congratulate the men and women who labour tirelessly to find terrorists and ensure that the full weight of our justice system is brought to bear.