The mental illness-terrorism nexus and the need to train Canadian judges on what terrorism is

If there is one myth about terrorism and terrorists that is really hard to shake it has to be the belief among many that those who engage in political or ideological violence must be mentally ill. After all, who in their right mind would don a suicide vest or run with a knife towards police (like Martin Couture-Rouleau did in 2014)? Surely these people cannot be sane!

And yet, study after study after study (here I recommend the work of my friend Paul Gill at University College London) shows that terrorists are no more likely to suffer from mental illness than the average citizen (there are exceptions in some types of terrorists – e.g. lone actors for instance – but the finding is still valid). As difficult as this is for us to grasp, terrorists are usually rational people making rational choices.

Still there are those terrorists who may indeed be mentally unwell, and in our justice system we treat those as not criminally responsible. Instead of jailing them we get them the help they need. Although I am no expert on mental illness this strikes me as the right and moral thing to do.

A case stretching back to 2016 in Toronto does raise interesting questions however. Ayanle Hassan Ali was charged with attempted murder, assault causing bodily harm and assault with a weapon, as well as carrying a weapon, all for the benefit of a terrorist group in connection with a March 2016 knife attack on a Canadian military recruiting centre in Markham. Last year, an Ontario judge found that while Mr. Ali was motivated by his extremist beliefs, the emergence of those beliefs was linked to his mental illness, and concluded that he was acting alone and thus not for the benefit of a terrorist group. Mr. Ali was therefore cleared on the terror element of the charges and found not criminally responsible on lesser included offences.

It has now been learned that the Crown (the prosecution in Canada) is arguing for a new trial and that Mr. Ali should still be considered not criminally responsible, but on the terror charges rather than the lesser ones. While some may argue that this is splitting hairs – Mr. Ali will still not go to prison after all due to his condition – there is some merit to the Crown request. Not on whether the assailant is mentally ill or not as I assume that qualified professionals are best placed to make that determination and have already done so. No, my concern lies with the original judge’s decision to throw out terrorism charges since s/he did not think Mr. Ali carried out his actions ‘for the benefit of a terrorist group’. This demonstrates a worrisome lack of knowledge of today’s terrorism within the legal system.

Does someone have to ‘belong’ to a terrorist group or list one overtly as ‘beneficiary’ to be deemed a terrorist? No, of course not. The fact that Mr. Ali was not shown to have an Al Qaeda library card or an Islamic State driver’s licence is irrelevant. His mental state notwithstanding, he demonstrated clear signs that his act was that of an Islamist extremist: he said ‘Allah told me to kill soldiers’ and he later told psychiatrists that he believed soldiers were a “legitimate target” due to Canada’s military action in Muslim countries . Both these are classic tropes in the Islamist extremist world view. Anyone who uses violence in these veins is by definition a jihadi – of that there is zero doubt. This has been established for decades.

What concerns me is that the judge in question did not know this and hence ruled that the terrorism charges were not applicable. This leads to an important question: how much training and/or awareness raising do these officials get when it comes to terrorism? It sure looks to me like some still need remedial instruction. Full disclosure: I have briefed and lectured to judges at the federal and provincial levels in Canada at many conferences in the past on this very topic.

In this light the Crown’s appeal is the correct one. We need to push back against incorrect judicial decisions made out of ignorance. Terrorism may be a rare scourge (thankfully!) in our country but it is not completely absent. Judges must issue rulings based on the best available current information on the terrorism phenomenon. Anything less is unacceptable.

PS I am always willing to provide this training (hint, hint!).

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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