Opinion

Terrorism, the Lone Wolf and the Law

Don’t let loopy saga of Nuttall and Korody blind us to hard choices.

By Andre Gerolymatos 1 Aug 2016 | TheTyee.ca

André Gerolymatos is co-director of the Terrorism, Risk and Security Studies program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. His Tyee articles are here.

On July 29, 2016 Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bruce overturned the guilty verdicts found last year against John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, a pair of meth addicts who had embraced terrorism as their delusional contribution to Islam. Some Canadians applauded the judge’s decision, others were appalled. But the case is more about the insidious threat of terrorism, and by extension, finding a civil rights balance.

The trial and subsequent appeal has brought into focus the challenges facing societies in fighting terrorism — in particular, the challenge of identifying and stopping “lone wolf” threats who, often, are mentally ill.

For a considerable period of time, undercover RCMP officers had maintained contact with Nuttall and Korody in an effort to prevent them from undertaking a terrorist attack.

In effect, the RCMP had set up a sting operation after warnings about the couple from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Accordingly, RCMP officers pretended to be jihadists in order to draw out Nuttall and Korody into attempting to set off handmade pressure cooker bombs at British Columbia’s provincial legislature on Canada Day in 2013.

The bombs were duds and throughout the planning stage the RCMP had control of the couple. In repealing the conviction Justice Bruce castigated the RCMP for entrapment and argued that the undercover officers had convinced the couple to undertake a terrorist attack.

The conundrum facing Canadians is this: was Justice Bruce right or has she unwittingly freed two potential terrorists? Another critical consideration is if the RCMP officers were able to convince the couple to plant bombs, so could have ISIS or its affiliates.

Certainly, according to the recordings between the couple and the undercover officers, Nuttall and Korody were more than willing to kill as many people as possible and even dreamt of achieving a body count higher than that of 9/11. Indeed, they had the desire, and once shown the means, both were prepared to inflict death and destruction against innocent men, women and children.

Justice Bruce claims that the RCMP should have directed the couple to Islamic scholars so that they could have guided the couple away from jihadist influence.

Perhaps, this should have been the case if the couple had been incarcerated long enough to succeed with drug rehabilitation and counselling, which they could only get in prison. As it stands, and pending another appeal by the prosecution, Justice Bruce is prepared to release into society two jihadists hooked on meth and heroin with delusions of murder and suicide.

Others will argue that Nuttall and Korody are delusional drug addicts who do not have the wherewithal to plan and execute an attack, and that without the RCMP undercover officers showing them how to make pressure cooker bombs, they would not have been able to do so. Sadly, bombs are not the only means by which a disturbed person can kill.

Crazed attackers’ everyday weapons

On July 14 in Nice, France, Mohamed Lahouaij-Bouhlel used a truck to kill 80 people and wounded hundreds more amidst celebrations on France’s national holiday. According to his father, the Tunisian born Lahouaij-Bouhlel as a child exhibited psychological problems and violent tendencies, which were controlled with medication. When Lahouaij-Bouhlel immigrated to France, however, he became increasingly violent and joined ISIS.

A few days after the Nice massacre, a 17-year-old Afghan migrant seeking asylum in Germany attacked passengers on a train in Würzburg with an axe and a knife, wounding four people before police killed him. Additional attacks on behalf of ISIS have been carried out since then: a suicide bombing on July 24 injured 15 people in Ansbach, Germany and on July 26, two terrorists claiming allegiance to ISIS entered a church in the French city of Rouen, slit the throat of an 84-year-old priest as well as taking hostages.

These were all individuals with deep psychological problems who had turned to ISIS for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Some have hallucinations, others hear voices and many are driven by a lust for violence. A substantial number are misogynists and child molesters as well as sadists. Furthermore, a great many ISIS terrorists fighting in Iraq and Syria as well as their followers elsewhere have become dependent on drugs for stimulation or to sustain their illusion of the caliphate.

On the battlefields of Syria and Iraq it is relatively easy to identify and destroy the members of ISIS, but it is incredibly difficult to pick them out in Europe, Africa, North America and in the Middle East. This is the dilemma that confronts civil society — how do the security services fight the lone wolf?

When a lone wolf is not really alone

To make the challenge even more complex, factor in that sometimes the lone wolf is used as a smoke screen for a more sophisticated attack.

Example: In April 2015, Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian national studying in France, was hospitalized after accidentally shooting himself in the leg. The resulting investigation revealed that Ghlam, who was in possession of several weapons, had planned to attack churches around Paris. In August 2015, three Americans restrained Ayoub El-Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan, before he could shoot passengers on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

The authorities assumed that the two attacks were not connected, and Khazzani was identified as a lone wolf. The apparent incompetence of the perpetrators in both incidents indicated that theirs was the work of amateurs. At the same time, ISIS created the impression that it was primarily interested in inspiring lone wolf attacks rather than guiding them. Accordingly, ISIS produced a propaganda video shortly after Khazzani’s terrorist attempt encouraging “lone lions” to kill the enemies of the caliphate.

However, after the November 2015 attacks in Paris, it became evident that initial assessments had been wrong. A March 2016 article in the New York Times written by Rukmini Callimachi described how Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris terror strikes, had directed Ghlam, Khazzani and several others to carry out individual acts in Europe, while he was preparing the Paris operation.

Regardless of the failure of these small-scale plots, they diverted attention from ISIS’s more elaborate plan against Paris. Sadly, because French counterterrorism officers had assumed that Ghlam, Khazzani and other attackers were unrelated, they failed to detect the ISIS plots in France and Belgium and could not prevent the ensuing carnage.

In this case, and therefore potentially in others, there is a direct correlation between the erratic behavior of lone wolves and the potential of a well-coordinated terrorist strike.

Hard choices

Still, the conundrums remain: Does the state have the right to trap and arrest individuals on the basis of a hypothetical threat?

Should security and police authorities try to anticipate violent behavior and bring matters to a head by entrapping the future terrorist?

Are we in a new era when authorities’ power of surveillance needs to be increased?

Do we now create a small army of security officers shadowing fanatics and unhinged persons in the hope of catching those who make the fatal decision to resort to terrorism?

One option appears to be off the table, in the wake of recent bloody “lone wolf” attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino, Nice and Rouen. We are past shrugging acceptance that here and there a mentally ill person can be triggered to kill innocent people by handfuls or dozens. The body count is rising too fast and too high for politicians to ignore.  [Tyee]

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