The terrorist apple doesn’t fall far from the extremist tree

I have three grown children who are all well-adjusted young adults thanks to their mother. None have followed me in their career choices, entailing that there will be no future Gurskis toiling for either CSE or CSIS or any other part of the Canadian intelligence community. While it would have been cool if one or several had walked in my footsteps, and they would have enjoyed a super interesting work experience, I am ok with all of this. As long as they have successful lives and can take care of me in my dotage I’ll be happy.

The same cannot be said in the world of terrorism. Whether we are talking about the Islamic State extremists who brought their kids to the so-called ‘Caliphate’ (or had them there), or Canada’s infamous Ahmed Said Khadr who thought raising his progeny in an Al Qaeda (AQ) training camp in Afghanistan in the 1990s was a good environment full of role models for the young’uns, there are many examples of parents (usually fathers but often mothers as well) who pass the ‘family business’ on to their children.

One such high profile case came to the fore today with a story about Hamza bin Laden, whom terrorist scholar Ali Soufan described as ‘among his father’s favourite sons’ – the father of course being deceased Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, not his lesser known brother Carl who runs a gas station in Winnipeg (just kidding!). The US has announced a $1 million reward for information on the lad – well, no longer quite a lad as he is believed to be around 30 years of age – and this is two years after the Americans labelled him a ‘global terrorist’ (the Saudis, for their part, stripped Hamza of his citizenship). Hamza is seen by some as the heir apparent to his dad, a move many jihadis would welcome given the boring-as-watching-paint-dry terrorist currently heading AQ, Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Why does any of this matter? Because it says something interesting about how terrorists come to be. I and many others have been saying for decades that terrorists are made, not born, although having a father like Usama makes you a born terrorist as much as that is possible. When you are raised in a family headed by a terrorist, and not just any terrorist but the mastermind of 9/11, it stands to reason that there is a very good chance you will gravitate towards that lifestyle and career choice as well. The process to becoming a terrorist, which we call ‘radicalisation’, is an inherently social one and requires exposure to the right material (i.e. violent extremism) provided by the right people (in this case your parents) at the right time (i.e.not just at bedtime). We are all very open to and influenced by our parents’ messages and worldviews until we hit our terrible teens when most of us conclude that our folks are morons. But before then that is a lot of immersion into their mindset. Is it any wonder that the kids of terrorists turn out to be terrorists too in many cases?

This then leads to an inevitable, if uncomfortable, suggestion: should the state remove children from environments where they are being radicalised to violence by their parents? Is the state not authorised to put kids whose physical, emotional or psychological well-being is in danger in a safer milieu? We do it all the time when children are abused, so why wouldn’t we do that in these cases? I can tell you that in my time at CSIS I came across quite a few parents who were under investigation and who were passing on their ‘wisdom’ to their sons and daughters.

Furthermore, this is a very important challenge right now when we try to decide what to do with the offspring of IS terrorists holed up in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq. There is heated debate over whether to repatriate the moms and dads (I still say no) but everyone seems to agree that the children should be brought home. We can do the latter and leave the former to stand trial over there. And as for those who say that removing the toddlers from their parents will cause unnecessary further anguish, do you really think that placing them in loving, foster care, or with extended family members that are not themselves jihadis, is worse than what they have lived through thanks to their parents’ stupid decision to join IS? I am no child psychologist but I gotta think that we need to get these kids out stat and away from their terrorist elders. Young children are, after all, quite resilient and there is a good chance that in time they will be ok.

So yes, terrorist radicalisation at the feet of mum and dad is a real phenomenon. Do we have the courage to call it what it is and save these children from a life of pain and suffering? I know where my vote lies.

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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