Are terrorism charges the best way to deal with alleged young offenders?

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Authorities leading the terror arrest investigation remain tight-lipped
The arrest of a youth on terrorism charges in Kingston, Ont., has made national headlines. But there are still more questions than answers in this case. Here is a timeline of what we do know – Jan 28, 2019

On Jan. 24, the RCMP ended weeks of speculation about a mystery plane spotted over Kingston, linking it to a national security investigation and arresting two people as a result.

While a 20-year-old has been released, the other person, a minor, is charged with “knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity” and “counselling a person to deliver, place, discharge or detonate an explosive or other lethal device.”

That a young person was charged surprised many, but shouldn’t, given Canada has an entire portion of its counter-terrorism strategy devoted to youth, says Jessica Davis, who worked with CSIS until last year and is now the principal consultant at Insight Threat Intelligence.

WATCH: U.S. intelligence officials say terrorism ‘positioned to increase in 2019’

Click to play video: 'Terrorism ‘positioned to increase in 2019’: U.S. intelligence officials'
Terrorism ‘positioned to increase in 2019’: U.S. intelligence officials

Given the complex nature of the charge and the severity of the crime, is a terrorism charge still the best way to deal with cases involving minors?

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The charge

A word of caution from experts in the field: we don’t know enough yet about what happened in Kingston to say much about the particular youth in Kingston.

Between the creation of the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act, months after 9/11, and September 2018, 54 people have been arrested on terrorism charges, per a study done by University of Calgary law professor Michael Nesbitt. Of those, 26 have either pleaded guilty or been convicted.

A “sizeable” number of those charged are or were under the age of 18, Davis says. Several members of the Toronto 18; a 15-year-old boy in Montreal who robbed a convenience store because he was trying to get to Syria to help ISIS; and a Manitoba teenager who, at age 16, was charged with posting pro-terrorism comments online (he later pleaded guilty).

Terrorism charges “stand out from almost any other kind of criminal charge,” says Lorne Dawson, project director at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. And when the person facing them is a juvenile, “you always worry about whether they seriously understand what they’re getting into.”

However, the severity of the Kingston youth’s charges “very directly imply” authorities think more people are involved, says Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs.

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The intent

Wark says there’s a need for a range of options well before criminal sanctions when it comes to dealing with terrorism. For young offenders, in particular, he says, “there should be a special onus on thinking very carefully about whether criminal sanctions are the best route to go,” given young offenders are recognized as having “the greatest capacity for reform.”

WATCH: Recent RCMP charges on Kingston youth frustrate Calgary mom with firsthand experience

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These seem to be issues the government is aware of, Wark says, pointing to Bill C-59, which has yet to pass but includes amendments to the Youth Criminal Justice Act that would make sure those who embroiled in terrorism-related issues are still afforded the “enhanced procedural and other protections” provided by the Act.

“That signals that the government wants to have some separate tools available to deal with youths and to be very careful about how it’s done.”

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Given the FBI’s involvement in the Kingston case, Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, a PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School whose area of research includes terrorism studies, says it’s important to think back to Omar Khadr as an example of “what not to do with youth accused of terrorism.”

Khadr, a Canadian, was held for a decade at Guantanamo Bay after being captured in Afghanistan. A 15-year-old child soldier at the time, Khadr was charged with throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. army sergeant in 2002. He pleaded guilty but later said he was coerced into the plea and recanted. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled his charter rights had been violated and the government settled a subsequent lawsuit from Khadr for $10.5 million.

People need to remember, especially when the accused is too young to be legally named, Al-Hassani says, that “no one is born with intent to harm. They are socialized into it. That is, of course, if the person in question actually committed the crime of which he’s accused.”

What the public is allowed to know

Whatever happens, Canadians likely won’t know the details for a long while.

“The government struggles in general to find an appropriate way of providing information following these arrests,” Wark says.

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“It’s just wrong — there is always a great deal more information that can be supplied, that should be supplied.”

That information vacuum is even bigger when it comes to youths given the privacy protections, Davis says, which makes it hard to know what “soft” or non-criminal interventions officials tried before laying charges.

That information void can also make it hard for people to understand how Canada defines terrorism, Al-Hassani says. For instance, why are terrorism charges appropriate for a minor in Kingston whose plot was foiled but not — as many have questioned — for Alexandre Bissonnette, who opened fire during prayers at a Quebec City mosque, killing six people and wounding others?

A huge part of the debate before the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed in 2001 was about whether specific terrorism offences needed to be defined, Wark says, but in the end, the argument that the Criminal Code was enough won out.

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As it stands, the Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act that is intended to intimidate the public by causing death or serious harm, carried out “for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.” So while it is not, as experts have noted in the past, equipped to address lone-wolf suspects like Bissonnette, it can capture those — adult or youth — who are connected with identifiable terrorist organizations.

It’s important to remember that when it comes to young people, “there is always a source of influence,” Al-Hassani says, “especially from someone they trust.”

— with files from The Canadian Press 

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