The Tamil Tiger who changed his stripes?

How easy is it to tell whether a ‘former’ terrorist is no longer one?

How easy is it to tell whether a ‘former’ terrorist is no longer one?

There is an ongoing debate on many fronts on what to do with Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists who had left their home countries to join the terrorist group and who are now holed up in prison/refugee camps in Iraq/Syria/Kurdish-controlled territory. Some are advocating repatriation and reintegration of these ‘former’ terrorists. Others – and I am among them – are saying that these criminals should be tried, sentenced and imprisoned where their crimes were committed.

One of the assumptions made by the ‘bring them home’ crowd is that these ‘ex’ terrorists pose no threat to their native lands. Claims are made that these ISIS members have ‘seen the light’, regret their past decisions and just want to get back to a normal life, preferably in their old homes.

The main problem, of course, is to determine what it means to be a ‘former’ anything and how we actually make that determination. What is an ex-alcoholic? An erstwhile drug user? A reformed murderer? Is it not possible – and have their not been enough cases already – of those who ‘turned a corner’ only to end up right back where they used to be? I think history is on the side of the doubters here.

True, there are cases of repented terrorists from a variety of ideological stripes who show every sign of having put their past behind them. They appear, for all intents and purposes, to have really moved on and to have thus re-entered the life they led before they heeded the call of the terrorism siren.

Still, is it not also true that once bitten by the terrorism bug it is possible to go back for more? Are those who experienced that way of thinking not (slightly) more apt to return to it?

Do we even know?

This brings me to an interesting case of Suresh Sriskandarajah, a convicted Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist who has gone to law school and filed his membership application with the Law Society of Ontario. Family, friends, and colleagues have all given testimony that he is now of good character, despite having been arrested in 2006 while a graduate student at the University of Waterloo at the request of US officials who were investigating LTTE attempts to by military equipment.

Mr. Sriskandarajah pleaded guilty in 2013 to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation – after fighting extradition to the US for six years – and received two years in prison. He claims his involvement with the LTTE was driven by his desire to ‘change the world and right injustices’ and that he had been affected by what he saw during the catastrophic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in his native Sri Lanka (he says the only ones helping in relief efforts were the LTTE).

I did not appreciate the broader implications my decision to associate with the Tamil Tigers would have.

Suresh Sriskandarajah 

Back in Canada and at the University of Waterloo, he continued to supply the LTTE with technical support and equipment, including laptops and GPS devices, which he had other students take to Sri Lanka to give to the terrorist group. It is impossible that he could not have known that the LTTE was a terrorist organisation, one of the most lethal in history (he is Tamil: the LTTE said it was fighting for Tamil rights).

To its credit, the Law Society Tribunal agonised over what to do with his case. Mr. Sriskadarajah says he was ‘changed forever’ by his time in prison and the he has ‘paid a heavy price’ for his past support of the LTTE. He maintains he would ‘approach things differently now’ than he did in the early 2000s.

Count me a skeptic of those who say that they no longer hold the same beliefs they once did when it comes to terrorism. It is not that I reject the possibility that people do change and recognise the errors of their previous ways. They do. It’s just that I have no idea how anyone can be sure. Is there a foolproof system to determine honesty? Is there a formula to ensure that a ‘former’ terrorist will never return to earlier beliefs? I have no idea.

It is not that I wish Mr. Sriskandarajah ill or want to deny him an opportunity to make good. We all deserve a second go at life if we really want to atone for past serious errors. Terrorism strikes me as different, though, as it relates to one’s mindset and commitment to an ideology.

Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am for Mr. Sriskandarajah’s sake and for ours. And yet, what of the victims of LTTE terrorism, terrorism that he facilitated? Do they not deserve their day in court as well?

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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