Young terrorists vs. child soldiers

It is natural in a court case in Canada and the US for the defence to use all possible means to ensure a not guilty verdict for its client.  The arguments used do not have to be true or even plausible: they just have to introduce a level of reasonable doubt in the minds of the judge or jury to be successful.  I may not agree with the principle of evading truth for selfish reasons (i.e. acquittal), or seeking to undermine the character of a witness for example with no interest in whether what s/he is saying is true, but that is the way our judicial system works.  Flaws and all, it is certainly better than what we see in a bunch of other countries.  Would that we had a Solomon to mete out true justice.

But some arguments have to be opposed and rejected not just as wrong, but dangerously wrong.  Case in point: the defence’s contention in the recent trial (and conviction) of a Montreal youth accused of seeking to join Islamic State that its client was a “confused teenager” and should be treated as a child soldier.

Wrong and wrong.

Why do we have a hard time accepting that youth can make bad decisions?  Sure, scientists say that the human brain’s decision-making centres are not fully mature until our early 20s and hence younger people should not be held accountable for their actions (the “brain made me do it” argument).  While the hard science may be right, however, the soft science is not so solid.  It is my experience, not based on science, that some young people subscribe to certain ideologies – terrorism – willingly and deliberately.  They are not “confused” and they are not “brainwashed”.  In fact, the sophistication with which they can articulate aspects of that ideology actually shows unexpected levels of maturity.  The court rightly rejected this argument.

What about the child soldier angle?  Again, it is hard to see how this can apply here.  Was the young man recruited? Probably, although it appears he certainly took the initiative by viewing violent material online.  Was he coerced?  Not that I have seen.  Was he promised rewards or threatened if he did not join?  Again, not to my knowledge.

I know that the term “child soldier” is used in law to refer to any person under the age of 18 who fights, but in the public imagination we use the term to describe, for example, boys forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.  Children are ordered to kill their own family members and then dragged into these so-called armies, often drugged or plied with other substances to numb their feelings.  Girls are taken as “wives” – i.e. sex slaves – or cooks.  These kids have no choice and certainly did not seek their fate.  To compare the youth in Montreal to these victims insults real child soldiers everywhere.  There is the letter of the law and the spirit.  Sometimes the former trumps the latter.  Not here thank God.

The court was correct in rejecting the defence arguments.  The defendant was found guilty as charged and deservedly so.

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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