What should parents do when their son becomes a terrorist?

As some of you may know, I am a grandfather (yes, I am THAT old!). I have an almost 2-year old grandson and, duh!, he is the most perfect grandchild. Ever. In the history of the planet. Of that there is no doubt and I should know since I am his grandfather.

What is that you say? You think I may be a smidgen biased? Are you suggesting that my little Henry is not the most perfectest little blond-haired toddler since the dawn of creation? Am I guilty of favouring my own flesh and blood?

Of course I am: that is what (grand)parents do (nonetheless he still is the perfection of grandchildhood!). We stick up for our kids, we provide them with opportunities and we stand behind them when they mess up.

Enter John Letts. He is the Canadian father of Jack, so-called Jihadi Jack, an Islamic State (IS) terrorist, or alleged terrorist, currently held by the Kurds in northern Iraq/Syria. Jack wants to come home and the Kurds want him, and the thousands of other IS prisoners who happen to be Westerners, out of their hair. They want the governments of these people to take these problems back. Jack wants to go back to the UK.

Except that the UK just revoked his citizenship, leaving him with his Canadian one (for the record he was born in the UK and spent his whole life prior to joining IS there aside from the odd vacation in Canada). So John Letts and his wife want us to take him (notice I did not say take him ‘back’). To date the Canadian government has said ‘nuh-uh’. Officials state, and they are correct in this, that they have no legal obligation to go and get him. If on the other hand Jack makes his way back we have to accept him under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms irrespective of his ‘visitor’ status.

But back to John, the dad. He has adamantly said that his son was not a supporter of IS and that he could prove it if it were not for ‘sealed records’. He also maintains that Jack went to Syria only to do ‘religious work’. Jack, he has said, would not ‘hurt a tree’.

This flies in the face of other information however. There is solid indication, from other UK Muslims, that Jack was radicalising in Britain before his departure and that mom and dad ignored these warning signs and suggestions they take away his passport: they did the opposite. There is also evidence that ‘Jihadi Jack’ also was definitely part of IS and made threats against the West, including violent Facebook posts, in which he said he would “happily kill each and every one” of the members of a British military regiment of which a former schoolmate was a member.

A lot of this is of course hard to prove, especially in court where the determination of guilt is rightfully arduous (FaceBook postings can be faked for example). Were we in Canada to bring Jack back, charge him and try him it is far from obvious, despite what Janice Stein of the Munk Centre in Toronto claimed when we were both on a radio programme yesterday, that he would be convicted. He could just as easily walk free. There is also the niggling fact that the Canadian Criminal Code talks about those who left Canada to join a terrorist group or engage in terrorist activity (83.181 Everyone who leaves or attempts to leave Canada, or goes or attempts to go on board a conveyance with the intent to leave Canada…): Jack left the UK, not Canada, to join IS.

But again, back to John Letts. He is doing what a loving parent does. He wants our help to, in his own words, “save my son’s life.” I can understand that but I also understand that the elder Letts may not be the best judge of what his son did or is still capable of doing. After all, courts did not generally compel spouses to testify against each other for very similar reasons (although this was recently changed, at least in Canada). John Letts may be incapable of admitting that his son is/was a terrorist. In fairness, he has said that if there was clear evidence to the contrary he would accept that.

I have tried to put myself in Mr. Letts’ shoes. If one of my children were to turn to terrorism, how would I feel? What would I do? One thing is certain: it would be highly ironic if that should happen given my position on terrorism and the fact that I worked in counter terrorism at CSIS for 15 years.

It is not clear what will happen to Jack Letts. It is clear, however, that John Letts will continue to lobby for his son. I get that. I might do the same. But it is also clear, at least to me, that John Letts should not be seen as a reliable judge of what his son became.

This is a nightmare for the Letts. I hope never to have to deal with this. Our kids are precious and we only want the best for them, to protect them and love them.

I think I’ll hug my grandson a little tighter next time I see him.

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.

Leave a Reply