Sep 07, 2018

A terrorist tells us why he did it – why should we believe him?

One of the harshest criticisms over a lot of stuff that is written about terrorism is the distinct lack of reliable and primary sources.  Papers and books are written in an academic style with little use of actual data, although as my friend Bart Schuurman in the Netherlands has stated things are looking up as more and more scholars avail themselves of what terrorists do and say.  I welcome that as someone who has long tried to keep up with what is being published, even when I had access to amazing intelligence while at CSIS.

When we assess primary data, what should we make of it? Is it reliable?  Truthful?  Useable?  In an era of fake news, which by the way may be getting much, much worse (shudder!), how can we determine that what we read and see is real?  Here is a case in point.

Zakaria Amara was one of the principal masterminds in the 2005-2006 Toronto 18 plot in Canada.  Thanks to CSIS and the RCMP and their partners the cell failed to explode three one-tonne bombs in the GTA and at a military base in Trenton, Ontario, and all the members got arrested.  More than half were found guilty and several received long sentences.  Mr. Amara was one of the latter: he got a life sentence.

He has penned a piece on FaceBook to explain what went wrong with his life and you really should read the whole thing.  In summary, he says he felt worthless and did not belong.  He became radicalised because of what was happening in the Arab/Muslim world (corrupt governments, wars, airstrikes, etc.) and it was only when he hung around with equally radicalised peers that he felt worthy and ‘heroic’.    At the end of his piece he asks a whole bunch of people for forgiveness.  He has ‘seen the light’ or so he says.

What should we as Canadians make of all this?  Before continuing I need to point out the obvious.  While Mr. Amara and his buddies were planning to blow shit up I was at CSIS and actively monitoring what they were up to.  I was the Service’s lead strategic analyst on Islamist extremism and feeding my operational colleagues with stuff I felt could help them understand what they were seeing in their investigations.  So no, I claim precisely zero objectivity in this matter.

But back to Mr. Amara.  What should we do with his ‘heart felt’ confession?  That is hard to say.  I’d like to think he is sincere and full of regret but my past experiences remind me to be careful on this front.  I have interviewed incarcerated terrorists and seen everything from what I thought was true remorse all the way to rabid conviction by some that what they were planning to do was right.  It is thus far from obvious where Mr. Amara fits on this scale.  I’d really like to believe him but…

More importantly, he cites reasons and/or excuses for why he did what he did.  There are serious problems with what he writes.  Yes, the ills in the Islamic world are real.  Yes, millions have been killed, the vast majority of whom were guilty of no crime.  Yes, there is Islamophobia and other bad things out there.  And yet, 99.999 % of those who face those challenges do not opt to blow things up.  Mr. Amara did.

What I found telling in his outpouring of emotion was a distinct lack of ownership or responsibility.  Aside from admitting he was guilty he does not write that he chose to do what he did.  It is all the fault of “a perfect storm of internal and external influences” (his words, not mine) and that his plans were “inevitable”.

No, they were not Mr. Amara.  You had a choice and you opted for violent extremism. There were other avenues.  You could have sought assistance for your feelings of inadequacy.  You could have worked to undermine discrimination and bias.  You could have worked to become part of Canada. And yet you didn’t.  None of this is anyone’s fault but yours.  Accept that.

I am not an ogre.  I do hope that Mr. Amara is sincere in his reconciliation and I hope that when he gets out of jail, which he will do one day, that his life can achieve some sense of normalcy.  It seems to me however that admitting that he deliberately chose to try to kill innocent Canadians is first and foremost at the top of the healing process.

Mr. Amara entitled his essay “The boy and his sand castle”.  I regret to say that much of his argumentation is built on sand.

  • Kamran Bhatti

    If you want to understand terrorism, study terrorists . Not my words, they’re yours my friend .

    I learned a lot from my late father, may God rest his soul, who worked at the Brantford jail about the things that inmates do and say. Some rant on about how glorious the crime was, some stay quiet and head down, some will feel remorse and reflect on the crime they committed.

    I read the Facebook post and also has mixed emotions .Here’s how I broke it down:

    Do I believe him? Mostly.
    Do I think that 12 years in prison has changed him? Definitely .
    Do I believe he’s grown up from the way he was 12 years ago? Well think of how any of us were 12 years ago compared to today, most of it have changed. Then when you mix in the fact he was only 20 without a fully developed frontal lobe, it is fairly plausible that he’s grown up and matured .

    He will not see his daughter everyday except only supervised in a prison environment for a limited time. I can imagine that is also taking a significant toll on his life. I recently became a father after we adopted a baby girl and I can’t imagine spending a day away from her.

    I also think what does he have to gain? He’s going to be behind bars for years and years not days or hours, he is not going to get a job that he needs to stays laying a groundwork for. I think he’s being genuine. I also think the fact he didn’t take responsibility (while somewhat immature) also showed a vulnerability in him to express these positions .

    People can and do change. I tend to believe him and his reasoning for why he did what he did . We teach young people regularly to make good friends and keep good company simply because of the dangers of echo chambers. By no means do I agree with what he did, but seeing a glimpse from his perspective gives me a moment of pause and a chance to reflect on if we’re doing the right things to prevent something like those potential events from happening again.

    • Jed

      I have to wonder though, considering the blame he places in this article, taking zero responsibility for his insane, extreme actions and plans – what effect will being in prison for so long have on him? what effect will not seeing his daughter, his family etc for such a long period of time have on him? Will this contribute to his reasoning and prompt him to plan another activity such as the one he is in jail for? i am an incredibly empathetic person, I even try to consider the minds or pedophiles and rapists etc., who have serious mental issues, but I can not, and will not EVER empathize with/for anyone who attempts this type of atrocity! Murdering masses of innocent people, there is NO benefit to this!! There are no excuses for this! It is an enormous act to carry out and not ever believe that what you are doing is wrong and you need help! It is planned, calculated, all things are considered, and reconsidered and yet they still carry out these attacks! I have a hard time believing that once you’re capable of such an act, that capability ever goes away.