What to do with IS defectors?

Years ago when I first joined CSIS there was a veteran CT (counter terrorism) guy whom I’ll call Mike.  He had been around a fair bit and I had a great deal of respect both for his experience and his insight into Islamist extremism.  In all his time in the trenches he had seen a lot, talked to a lot of people, and acquired a lot of wisdom into terrorists and terrorism.  One thing he told me more than a decade ago has always resonated with me.  He said that he had talked to a lot of Canadians who had fought with Al Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan and every single one of them told him that they were not terrorists but simply “drove the bus” in whatever camp or town they happened to live in at the time.

These words came back to me today when I came across an article in The Independent (a UK daily) containing an interview with a former Islamic State (IS) fighter.  Part of it is worth quoting at length:

  • “If you listen to all these people who had left Daesh [Isis], you’d think all they were doing was cooking or driving. I had no idea we had so many cooks and drivers! I wonder why we didn’t open lots of restaurants and a taxi service.”

And I immediately thought of Mike, who has long since retired from the Canadian government.   Wherever you are Mike, I hope you are enjoying a well deserved respite after decades of service to our country.

In these words lies the conundrum facing security intelligence agencies, law enforcement, the military, governments and societies at large: what do we do with IS defectors (or anyone who claims to have left a terrorist group)?  There is no doubt that their departure can be seen as a treasure trove of intelligence and insider information into the plans and structures of extremist groups and that this data can help us understand these organisations and, perhaps, stop future plots.  Some have even advocated getting these ex-terrorists to go public and undermine the ideology and appeal of these murderous criminals.

If they are indeed ex-terrorists.  How can we tell?  Do we take these individuals at their word?  There have been instances where those who claimed to have abandoned a group and who were brought in for talks were in fact nothing of the sort (the most famous case was the Saudi member of Al Qaeda in Yemen who almost killed a prince with his rectal or underwear bomb  – the details don’t matter as your private parts are no place for explosives).

Is it not possible that the leadership of groups like IS has already thought of this kind of attack and that there may be several such “defectors” out there already?  Yes it is not only possible but probable, I would argue.  And I know of no way to reliably winnow the terrorist wheat from the disgusted chaff.

Yes, the vast majority of those who say they’ve seen and done enough and who thus want to leave this world are probably telling the truth.  But even if that is so, what then?  Do we “rehabilitate” them (how?)?  Do we allow them to go back to a normal life?  Do we charge them (based on what evidence?)?  Do we help them heal from their demons?  Do we shun them for what they once were?  All very good questions with no easy answers as far as I can see.

There is a growing literature on “leaving terrorism” and I cannot disagree with the fact that some people do indeed abandon previously held ideas and commitments.  It’s just that I cannot see a foolproof way forward.  To my mind, caution is the best approach and we would be idiots to embrace every former terrorist just because he/she says so.  The true defectors will be found out in time – and we need to take that time to prevent bad things from happening.

Besides, if they were really all “just driving the bus” perhaps they could demonstrate their skills in a real job.  Before the robots take over those positions.


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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