OTTAWA—Is Canada doing enough to “de-radicalize” convicted terrorists?
In the absence of targeted de-radicalization programs for terrorism offenders in prisons, experts say Canada can’t ensure they won’t reoffend.
Momin Khawaja, the first person charged under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act after 9/11, was denied full parole last month for posing a threat to society. He has spent 19 years behind bars.
“The nature of these offences suggests you have the potential to cause serious harm to many people should you return to your offence cycle and re-offend,” reads the Parole Board of Canada decision.
Khawaja, now 44, was arrested in March 2004 for his role in an al-Qaida-inspired plot to plant fertilizer bombs in the U.K. He has been serving a life sentence after being convicted of facilitating terrorist activity plus two criminal counts.
Khawaja, an Ottawa resident with Canadian and Pakistani citizenship, worked as a software engineer for a company contracted by Global Affairs at the time of the offences. According to the parole board’s summary, Khawaja designed a remote arming device for explosives, referred to as a “Hi-Fi digi-monster,” and agreed to make 30 of these devices. The records say that he planned to smuggle the devices into the United Kingdom and to train members on their use. The plot was never carried out.
During his hearing, Khawaja acknowledged for the first time before the board that the objective of building the device was so it could eventually be able to trigger a detonator bomb and said that though he was not aware of specific plans, that he was contributing to terrorism.
The board called this a turning point but said overall risks of parole were still too high, and it wasn’t convinced he had abandoned extremist views. It also mentioned concerns for Khawaja’s mental health during his sentence.
Some other terrorism offenders have been released and reoffended before, in Canada and abroad. But the larger question is: what is Canada doing to de-radicalize these people?
Experts say the main issue is that Canada’s corrections facilities do not have targeted de-radicalization programs for convicted terrorists or violent religious extremists.
Inmates can have regular counselling chaplains, including imams and representatives of other faiths, offer spiritual guidance under the CSC’s “Faith Community Reintegration Project.” They can also have access, if they qualify, to other rehabilitation programs, such as vocational training and anger management. There are currently seven Muslim chaplains listed for Ontario region.
Experts say those counselling sessions — which do not necessarily address terrorism or religiously motivated crimes — are not generally enough to de-radicalize religious extremists, particularly those who follow distorted interpretations of Islam.
“I warned of the importance of having a de-radicalization program, after the Toronto 18 terrorist (arrests in 2006) but to no avail,” said Wagdy Loza, a former chief psychologist at Corrections Canada, and an adjunct assistant professor at Queen’s University. Loza left the CSC in 2009 but continued to assess offenders until about two years ago through a contractor.
Loza said the prison system is not currently equipped to rehabilitate terrorists, but offering correctional staff training on extremist ideologies could help.
Designing and implementing rehabilitation programs requires expertise in specific issues related to religious extremism such as Middle Eastern ideologies that promote jihad, as well as religious counselling, said Loza.
“There must be appropriate intervention for offenders who have been convicted for Islamist extremism, targeting extremist beliefs and ideologies, attributions, behaviour, with follow-up/maintenance programs.”
Corrections Canada said the agency can handle the challenges.
“The Correctional Service of Canada is well positioned to manage the unique challenges posed by radicalized offenders through its existing security mechanisms,” Kevin Antonucci, CSC’s acting senior communications adviser, said in an email.
Upon entering federal custody, radicalized offenders and convicted terrorists, like all offenders, are assessed to determine risks and needs. In line with evidence-based practices, offenders are referred to correctional programs at the intensity that is matched to their level of risk, according to CSC.
“Throughout their incarceration, the progress of all offenders, including radicalized offenders, is reviewed for eligibility for legislated or conditional release. In any inmate-related decision including release, CSC takes into account the protection of society, including any victims, as paramount for consideration.”
Mubin Shaikh, a former Taliban supporter and former counterterrorism operative for CSIS and the RCMP, said “more resources need to go into programming while in custody, to better prepare them as they do their time.”
“Leaving them just solidifies their anti-social thinking,” he said.
“Chaplain imams are viewed as part of the system and so have limited effect to influence some of the more ideologically driven convicts,” Shaikh said.
Shaikh knew Khawaja as a young boy from a Qur’an school in Toronto and used to play Hot Wheels with his older brother. He got recruited by CSIS after getting in touch with the service to potentially be a character reference for Khawaja, only to discover his childhood friend had changed.
The parole board assesses whether the offender should be released, and part of that is determining whether the person is likely to reoffend. But no one can “ensure” the person won’t reoffend, according to Michael King, director of research at the Organization for the Prevention of Violence.
King worked as a senior research adviser at the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and the Prevention of Violence, housed within Public Safety Canada, where he helped develop Canada’s National Strategy on Countering Violence Extremism.
“That’s when the national security apparatus kicks in,” he explained. “The person is likely going to be investigated and surveilled for a while post-release.”
CBC reported in 2020 that Kevin Omar Mohamed, an Ontario man convicted of supporting an al-Qaida-affiliated terror group, had been rearrested shortly after his release. A national security official received information suggesting he “may pose a threat to public safety.”
A measure that all four experts who spoke to the Star echoed is the need to set up a “correctional plan” for terrorism offenders for their prison time and post-release.
“Not every imam or psychologist will be able to provide the required counselling,” argued Loza. “New programs are needed, with a good portion of these programs focusing on psychological intervention.”
“We have seen some individuals benefit greatly from talking to trained religious leaders while in prison,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University. “Others may not want anything to do with the system at all.”
While none of this is an exact science, according to Amarasingam, what the government has built over the past decade (through working with outside groups) is leaps and bounds ahead of where we were. The infrastructure today is much better than it was several years ago.
“Ideology is important,” he said, “but research suggests that a whole host of other things are also key for the reintegration process, from psychological well-being to meaningful employment.”
King said rehabilitation could involve “a requirement for them to participate in countering violent extremism.
“Participation in such program, as well as other psycho-social support programs, can help the person reintegrate and mitigate the potential risk they may pose to society, while CSIS and/or the RCMP may monitor them.”
Lorne Dawson of the University of Waterloo said people convicted of terrorism are unlike other inmates.
“Corrections Canada’s in-house research showed — I have read the reports — that the young men convicted of jihadist terrorism offences were quite unlike most other prisoners,” said Dawson, a sociology professor with expertise in terrorism, religion and violent extremism.
“They had no mental health or substance abuse problems, or prior history of criminality and abuse, and they did not qualify for the existing programs in prison. Alternatively, for the first 10 years or so of their incarceration, they were kept apart from the general prison population and in the equivalent of solitary confinement. When they appeared before a parole board, they could not then prove satisfactorily that they had changed, because they had not participated in any programs that could provide evaluations or proof of their rehabilitation.”
In Khawaja’s case, the parole board acknowledged he engaged in extensive religious studies with his imams, and completed Arabic language studies and an undergraduate degree in sociology.
Multiple studies of rates of recidivism for terrorist offenders released from prison have demonstrated that the rates of reoffending are much lower that for the rest of the prison population, Dawson said.
Data from a 2021 study in the U.S. revealed, for example, that the recidivism rate between 2001 and 2020 was 3.1 per cent. Of the 354 offenders who were released, 11 reoffended.
“At the end of the day, changing people’s minds is going to be difficult and is likely to lead nowhere,” argued Amarasingam.
“If we expect everyone going through these programs to come out as liberal democrats, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We have to be mature about where people land ideologically. It’s just important that they are engaged in nonviolent, pro-social activities.”