What do you do if you are the parent of a terrorist?

Parenting is hard. I have first-hand experience as I am the father of three children – all wonderful of course;) But they were not always wonderful. Or rather there were challenges along the way, from fussy infants to sullen teens. Every parent goes through these phases and – one hopes – comes out still sane and functional at the other end. Once our little darlings leave the nest we can look back fondly at their childhood and laugh about the times we wanted to sell them on e-Bay (just kidding!).

It is probably an open debate on how much responsibility we should be saddled with for how our kids turn out. If they become brain surgeons this is of course all thanks to us. If they end up not so fortunate, well that is the fault of their friends or the Internet.

So what if your child becomes a terrorist? What then?

I have been thinking of this ever since I read (and blogged about) how the father of Alexandre Bissonnette – the man who killed six at a Quebec City mosque in 2017 – has lashed out angrily at the Canadian government for continuing to call his son a terrorist, noting that he and the rest of the family have been placed in danger as a result.

Now I know nothing about the Bissonnette family. I have no idea what kind of environment Alexandre was raised in, what parenting philosophy his mother and/or father subscribed to, what their likes and dislike were, what they passed on to their children, etc. I have seen nothing to suggest that the hate for immigrants that consumed Alexandre was planted by his parents: that he seemed to develop in his own way with the help of like-minded people. I could be wrong but I cannot point to anything to counter this theory.

Are mom and dad Bissonnette still proud of their son? Do they still love him (do parents EVER stop loving their children? Thanks to a contact here is a Huffington Post piece on the ‘moms of Islamic State’ – those whose kids joined the terrorist group)? Will they continue to stand by him? How would you be if you were in their shoes? Me? I am not sure how to answer that question. As someone who worked in counter terrorism for 15 years and who has been writing about this for two decades I have no idea how I would react if one of my kids embraced the very acts of violence I did my small part to prevent from happening.

There are of course exceptions. I am sure that the late Ahmed Said Khadr looked on his son Omar – yes THAT Omar Khadr – and said “That’s my boy!!” In the same way moms and dads who are neo-Nazis and tattoo their kids with swastikas see their progeny as the next generation of heroes that will rid the world of ‘immigrant scum’. All of this does raise the question why does the state not seize these children and place them in normal families BEFORE they turn their attention to violent extremism?

Cases like this aside I am not so sure we can lay the blame for the terrorist attacks that some perpetrate at the feet of their parents. We are all an amalgam of many factors and many influences: my kids are not following in my footsteps after all (thank God!).

Besides, in the end are we not fully responsible for our own actions and our own decisions? Can we really say it is all because of the way we were raised? Are we not independent thinkers and actors?

So, unless we are talking about the Khadr clan and their ilk maybe we should lay off castigating parents for the deeds of their offspring. After all, do they not have enough to deal with already? Their suffering is hard to imagine: let’s not compound it.

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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