When should convicted terrorists be released from prison?

It seems that many Canadians, let alone foreigners, have forgotten about the Toronto 18 (I can attest that every time I give a talk on terrorism in Canada and make reference to the 2006 terror cell fewer and fewer people have any real knowledge of what remains the single largest counter terrorism investigation in our history).  Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the arrests in the Toronto area in what was the culmination of a long and very successful set of parallel investigations by CSIS and the RCMP (full disclosure: I was the lead strategic analyst on this investigation).   It is hard to overestimate the impact of this case on our understanding of homegrown violent extremism and the influence it had on most Canadians in their views on terrorism (I say most since there are still some that view the whole thing as a sting operation that trapped innocent people in a law enforcement web).  As a reminder, the group had purchased three tonnes of fertiliser, figured out how to make a bomb and chosen three targets in the Toronto area and elsewhere in Ontario.  All to punish Canada for its alleged atrocities in Afghanistan.

Of the eighteen arrested, eleven were found guilty or pleaded guilty: several of these spent many years in prison while others were released having served pre-trial time.  One of those that received a long sentence was Fahim Ahmad, the so-called mastermind of the cell.  Mr. Ahmad has been in a variety of Canadian prisons, including our version of a “super-max” in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, and has recently been denied parole since he has not demonstrated “sufficient change” to gain some freedom.

Some may howl in protest at this decision by the National Parole Board and see perhaps a smidgen of Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment.  Those people would be wrong.  While I am not familiar with how the Board reaches its consensus on whether to grant limited parole, I do know that there is little to suggest that Mr. Ahmad has been “deradicalised” (whatever that means) or has truly abandoned his violent ideology (this is essentially what the Board said).

In part, Mr. Ahmad’s lack of progress is due to a lack of reliable programmes in our corrections institutions to deal with prisoners like him: i.e. terrorists.  Despite claims to the contrary, they are different from ordinary inmates, are a relatively recent phenomenon in Canada, are tiny in number and are not well understood.  All these factors have contributed to a lack of knowledge on what to do with them.

In the end, if Mr. Ahmad cannot convince the Parole Board that he has changed he should remain behind bars.  He was the charismatic leader of the Toronto 18 and should not be released for fear that he could again engage in the radicalisation of others.  That is a risk we cannot take.

In time, Correctional Services Canada will develop programmes, in conjunction with community leaders, to help prisoners like Mr. Ahmad: I know that the department is doing just that right now.  In time, Mr.Ahmad may realise that the ideology he embraced and which led to his arrest and incarceration is a bad idea.  I hope so, for his sake.  In the interim he belongs just where he is.


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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