What to Do With Western Jihadis?

It’s a question most Western nations now have to face. What to do with Western Jihadis now seeking to head to Syria and Iraq, or worse, planning attacks at home? Is the proper course of action to take away their passports and try to keep an eye on them here? Or is it better to send them on their way, hoping they end up being killed on foreign soil?

The two attacks in the last week on members of the Canadian armed forces, including the spectacular attack at Parliament that saw a gunman make it all the way into the Centre Block, has forced Canada to confront the question directly. At the same time, we’ve been forced to ask “what constitutes a terrorist act?”

Both the attacks that killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec on October 20th and Corporal Nathan Cirillo two days later in Ottawa now appear to have been the work of so-called “lone wolfs”, self-radicalized individuals whose attacks, while inspired by terrorist organizations, cannot be linked to any particular group. These attacks have a good deal in common with the Lee Rigby murder in the United Kingdom in May of 2013.

The first question we have to ask is whether it is even legitimate to call people like Warrant Officer Vincent’s killer, Martin Couture-Rouleau, terrorists. Both he and the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, appear to have been individuals with troubled pasts, mental health issues who had self-radicalized. Under other circumstances, one would consider these to be failings of mental health services, with little relationship to radicalized individuals getting on planes to Turkey to join ISIS.

However, in both the cases of Couture-Rouleau and Zehaf-Bibeau, they had been deemed individuals of sufficient interest and concern that travel bans had been placed on them. Clearly, the RCMP, CSIS and other agencies felt they were more than simply mentally ill men. In other words, mental health concerns considered, they had been deemed to one extent or another to be would-be Jihadis.

Furthers, the placing of travel bans on the two men seems to have exacerbated their anti-Western sentiments. The leading theory seems to be that, being unable to get or use a passport to fly out of Canada, they directed their anger at domestic targets; in Coitire-Rouleau’s case, two uniformed soldiers in a parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. In Zehaf-Bibeau’s case, the victim was a reservist standing as an honorary guard at the War Monument in Ottawa.

So were these two men terrorists, or were they mentally ill? I do not see the two questions as being mutually exclusive. Doubtless among the Jihadis fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria are a whole assortment of pathologies; from the mentally ill, to the sociopathic, to the fanatical true believers in the brand of medieval fundamentalist Islamism. Like violent movements throughout history, ISIS attracts all sorts, and it makes little difference to their victims, at home or abroad, whether it is mental illness or fanaticism that motivates their attackers.

That all being said, the question that Western nations have to ask is what do we do with would-be Jihadis heading to the Middle East to join ISIS and other similar groups? The answer some have advocated is simply to allow them to go. The likelihood that they will survive seems fairly low, and once off of our soil, they cease to be a threat. They are no longer our problem.

I disagree with this sentiment, because, at its core, it says “the lives of the citizens of Western democracies are inherently more valuable than the lives of the people of Syria and Iraq.” That these Jihadis may not end up killing Westerners does not mean that they won’t end up killing at all. They will have their victims, and those victims and their families will suffer just as much as the families of the Canadians killed in the recent attacks.

However we deal with ISIS, I believe it is the responsibility of each nation to deal with their own radical Jihadis, and not to simply allow them to go abroad and hurt other people. That means we have to give law enforcement and CSIS the tools they need to better track these individuals, and where we feel they are at such a risk to anyone, whether here or in Iraq, to prevent them from doing so. If they are sufferers of mental health, then perhaps it means more resources to help them out of the dark place they are in. If they are radicalized, then that means more resources for them and their communities. If they are deemed simply to be criminals, then that means courts must step up.