Yes states have an obligation to prevent citizens from leaving to join terrorist groups, but the story doesn’t end there

I suppose that for many people the right to travel is seen as a freedom that no one, including the state, can mess with. Humans have been on the move for hundreds of thousands (millions?) of years and the world would not be what it is if we had not had this population exchange. I have also read that the freedom to choose where to go and where to live is tied to more fundamental ideas of free will.

In normal circumstances this all makes sense. Should I choose to emigrate to the UK, for instance, and live in the Cotswolds (probably because I have watched far too many British mystery series on Netflix and Acorn!) I have that right. Of course, I am subject to UK immigration laws and rulings and if that country decides it does not want me there is not a lot I can do about that. Even if I am a really nice guy who will be a net asset to the UK.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, what obligations or powers, if any, should a state possess in PREVENTING my departure? Can it stop me from leaving Canada should I choose to do so? It turns out it can, under heavily prescribed conditions. One tool the state has is to refuse to issue me a passport, without which travel is pretty hard these days (I am old enough to remember being able to cross into the US with nothing but a smile and a wink: those days are long gone!).

What are the circumstances that would lead the government to deny my exit? Well, as this is a blog on terrorism, one such instance would be the knowledge or belief that I intend to travel to carry out an act of terrorism or join a terrorist group. As these are offences under the Canadian Criminal Code and hence subject to charges (where evidence is robust enough to lay such) that makes sense. Where the evidence is not so weighty, however, the state can prohibit my departure and either monitor/investigate me (or continue to do so since their belief that I was up to no good was probably determined through an existing investigation) or even place conditions on my movements within Canada (through what is known as a peace bond).

On a more philosophical level the argument could be made that a state has an OBLIGATION to deny my exit if it knows I am a terrorist. In other words, a country cannot just ‘export’ its problems elsewhere: I cannot be allowed to wreak terrorist havoc and mayhem in the distorted view that at least I am not causing death and destruction in my home country.

The decision, then, to prevent terrorist travel is the right one. But at the same time it opens the door to all kinds of other problems. Those refused exit need to be monitored and assessed for their threat potential here, and that takes time, money and resources. Secondly, it stands to reason that a frustrated terrorist traveler could decide to vent his anger locally in what I call the “if I can’t do what I want there I’ll just do it here” phenomenon.

Many countries have faced this conundrum on what to do with wannabe ‘foreign fighters’ (NB many did leave anyway as they were not on the ‘radars’ of law enforcement or security intelligence agencies). Here is a partial list of the scale of the problem in a few states:

It is difficult to assess just how serious this problem is. Undoubtedly some who tried – and failed – to go will give up the cause entirely. Others will try to leave again at some future date. A few will plan acts locally.

This is not merely a theoretical exercise. It is real. In Canada two terrorist attacks in October 2014 were perpetrated by individuals who sought to join groups abroad but had their plans nixed (Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau). They ended up ‘just doing it here’.

The lesson here is that terrorist travel and what to do about it is complicated. While I do agree that we have a duty to stop those who have ill intent abroad we are also in a damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t situation. Please remember that next time you debate what we are doing to prevent terrorism.

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