Radically wrong

The more our security agencies investigate groups and individuals who adopt violent ideologies, some of which will engage in planning violent acts, the more we will be subjected to high profile and riveting trials.  In Canada over the past decade we have had several, ranging from the Toronto 18 to Momin Khawaja, and including plots to bomb a legislature and derail a train.  More are likely to come as more arrests are made.

In the course of these trials, we learn much about motivation, capability and intent.  On occasion, we get snippets about why these people decided to subscribe to these violent ideas: i.e. their radicalisation process.  It is not easy to unwrap the layers to gain a full understanding of why and how any given person becomes a violent extremist (full disclosure: this is one challenge my colleagues and I faced in the intelligence world, and we had access to much more information than anyone).  At the end of the day, how they came to be violent radicals is not important: they are judged on what they intended to do (or what they actually did).  Radicalisation remains an interesting sideline.

But of course, getting a better picture of the paths to radicalisation is critical if we want to develop policies and programmes to stop it before it starts, or shortly afterwards, since there is a strong consensus that the longer it plays out the harder it is to reverse.  As for those who are well entrenched in the violent mindset, there is a wide range of opinion whether they can truly ever be brought back to a non-radical position.  I personally am skeptical on that point.  While I concede that some could abandon the intent to use violence, I do not think the radical substrate disappears (it remains latent).

In the world of radicalisation studies there are good theories and bad.  The field is not well regulated and at times it seems that anyone can put out a premise based on little or no data.  Which brings me to Raed Jaser.

Mr. Jaser was convicted last March for his role, along with that of his co-conspirator, Chiheb Esseghaier, in plotting to derail a Via passenger train.  Now the court has heard from a psychiatrist that Mr. Jaser never really adopted violence but just pretended to because he is a drug addict and needed to find ways to stay high.  The psychiatrist made this statement after interviewing Mr. Jaser (see story here),adding that the convicted terrorist would make a good candidate for rehabilitation.

OK, there is not other way to put this: I find the psychiatrist’s statement incredibly naive and most likely incorrect.  In  my experience, drug addicts do not pretend to radicalise to ensure access to their fix.   Violent extremists believe that their cause is valid or even divinely mandated.  I do not believe that Mr. Jaser is any different.

This incident strikes me as a defence ploy to get better conditions for Mr. Jaser.  Does he deserve help behind bars?  Absolutely.  Is it possible to “rehabilitate” him?  Anything is possible, even if it is unlikely.  I am also struck that the psychiatrist came to his conclusion after interviewing Mr. Jaser.  Do we not have to take Mr. Jaser’s post-conviction rationalisation of his descent into violence with  a grain of salt?

Based on my experiences with radicalisation, I am left with no other conclusion than this: Mr. Jaser adopted his violent ideology in conjunction with Mr. Esseghaier (or others) and believed deeply that an act of terrorism was justified.

Terrorism was his high, not drugs.


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