It’s been a bad week to be a terrorist in Canada. In Quebec, a judge sent Said Namouh to prison for preparing terrorism propaganda and plotting a bombing in Vienna. In Ontario, a judge ruled that Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the “Toronto 18” found guilty of plotting to bomb prominent buildings in that city, would not escape sentencing just because a police informant egged on his terrorist intentions by offering bomb-making materials.
Namouh was sentenced to life in prison. Abdelhaleem’s sentencing date is being chosen today. Both deserve prison, for a long time.
There is something poignant in these outcomes. Canadians have been sold a bill of goods by spies, shadowy diplomats and pundits, warning that modern-day terrorism changes the rules of the game. Their pitch goes something like this: Terrorism is not like other crimes but is sui generis. Terrorists are monsters. Less personal privacy and more government secrecy will keep us safe. Sometimes torture is OK. Those who criticize are not patriotic.
Most dangerous of all: Terrorists don’t follow rules, so we can’t follow rules either.
How incredibly wrong all this now looks. In getting guilty verdicts against would-be terrorists, the police and prosecutors who pursued Namouh and Abdelhaleem prove that our criminal law rules are better than they are given credit for. Meanwhile, those who operated outside the rules do not have a single guilty verdict to show for their troubles.
Let’s begin with what the Canadian authorities did not do to nab Namouh and Abdelhaleem. They did not listen to their phone calls illegally. They did not detain them without trial. They did not obstruct them from communicating with a lawyer. They did not interrogate them illegally. They did not work hand-in-glove with torturers.
Actually, the police were extremely careful not to do any of these things, lest it spoil their chances to convict and put away their suspects. Instead, they counted on good, old fashioned detective work, such as following leads or paying informants to rat out the criminals. Their wise choice of tactics succeeded in convicting Namouh and Abdelhaleem, but also nabbed Zakaria Amara, the Toronto 18 ringleader, Ali Mohamed Dirie, a gunrunner, and Momin Khawaja, a bomb builder, among others.
In all those cases police played by the rules, and thanks to them, all these would-be terrorists are in prison. They do not threaten us any longer.
Now, compare the police’s enviable successes, against the appalling record of those amateurs who disobeyed the rules. More than anyone else in Canada, the spies of CSIS and the diplomats of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) trashed the rules. They arranged illegal detentions, collaborated with torturers, spied on lawyers, lied to judges and did other nefarious things.
The result? Not a single conviction.
Just look at the cases of Abousfian Abdelrazik, Abdullah Almalki, Hassan Almrei, Maher Arar, Adil Charkaoui, Ahmad El-Maati, Omar Khadr, Mohammad Mahjoub and Muayyed Nureddin. Not only did the authorities fail to convict any of these men, for any crime whatsoever, let alone terrorism, but they violated their human rights viciously. Those men are walking free today (excepting Khadr, who is in his eighth year of imprisonment awaiting trial), as is entirely correct under the legal presumption of innocence. All the amateurs managed to achieve was to traumatize these men, and ensure that Canadians will have to compensate them many millions of dollars in court-ordered judgments or settlements.
Some may find it surprising that the by-the-book approach of the police has so thoroughly outperformed the more aggressive approach of the spies and diplomats. But there is no reason for surprise. Canada’s criminal justice rules are the fruit of hundreds of years of evolution and refinement in the common law. To be sure the rules are not perfect, but they are time-tested, and therefore reliable anti-terrorism tools. How arrogant and ignorant of CSIS and DFAIT to imagine that they could do better by ignoring that accumulated wisdom, and how shameful that Canada’s courts were sometimes gulled into letting them do so.
The spooks’ and diplomats’ failure — not partial failure, but truly cataclysmic, total failure — to instigate even a single terrorist’s conviction is resounding. They remain amateurs still, and one searches in vain for evidence that failure has taught them how better to discern real from imagined threats. Just look at CSIS’s self-parodying court battle to censor the national archives’ files on, of all people, Tommy Douglas.
It is time to dispel the enchanting and dangerous myth that terrorism is special. Better results are achieved by recognizing that terrorists are just criminals, to be prosecuted under criminal law rules. Much of the cash poured into CSIS and DFAIT for anti-terrorism should be taken away, and given to Canada’s more deserving police forces. Politicians, such as our Prime Minister, who savage opponents for being “soft on terrorism” if they refuse to discard long legal traditions, should be dismissed as dangerous ideologues whose preferences actually make terrorism more likely. For the evidence is strikingly clear that those who break or distort the law never succeed in achieving terrorism convictions, while those who engage in stodgy police and trial work put terrorists behind bars. So who’s being soft on terrorism now?
(MS: Only thing is, CSIS' mandate is not to collect evidence rather, information - which is then passed on to the government. The Toronto 18 case began with efforts by CSIS let us not forget. Only afterwards did the RCMP get involved because their mandate is to collect evidence for public prosecution in open court.)