National Column: Entrapment ruling reins in excesses of war on terror

by Thomas Walkom

Terrorism is a real threat. The recent outrages in Europe and America underscore that fact. But a landmark British Columbia Supreme Court entrapment ruling illustrates what happens when the war on terror goes too far.

On Friday, Justice Catherine Bruce ruled that two convicted terrorists weren’t really terrorists at all. Rather, she wrote, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody were naive and vulnerable blowhards who talked fancifully about attacking Canadian targets in the name of Islam, but were either unable or unwilling to carry through.

She said the crime for which the two recovering heroin addicts had been convicted last year – attempting to plant so-called pressure-cooker bombs near the B.C. legislature – would never have taken place if RCMP undercover agents posing as big-time Islamist terrorists had not insisted on it.

The so-called Victoria bomb plot of 2013 made headlines across Canada. In arresting Nuttall and Korody, RCMP said they had foiled a plot by two Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists to mimic the Boston Marathon bombing.

The pair’s aim, police said, was to cause mayhem by detonating the bombs on Canada Day.

Last year, a jury convicted the couple on three terrorism charges. But as Bruce wrote, there was less to this plot than met the eye.

The judge concluded the two were quite simply incapable of pulling off a terrorist outrage – or indeed anything that required sustained thought. And the police, Bruce said, knew it.

By June of 2013, she wrote, the police undercover team sent in to monitor and befriend the couple had evidence that “confirmed Mr. Nuttall’s general ineptitude, his scatterbrained character, his inability to think logically, his childlike demeanour and his inability to remain focused on a task, which would be essential to the articulation and execution of a terrorist plot.”

Korody, his common-law wife, was no more capable, the judge said, noting that she spent most of her time during so-called terror planning sessions asleep.

The RCMP began its sting operation after receiving a tip from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service that the couple was trying to buy ingredients for explosives – a tip that went nowhere.

Still, the Mounties were alarmed by Nuttall’s jihadist rhetoric. So they put into play an elaborate scheme in which an agent befriending the couple pretended to be an Islamist terrorist.

The original aim was to find out what they were up to and stop them. But Bruce concluded the police agents soon found Nuttall and Korody were up to nothing but blather.

Nuttall talked of building Qassam rockets with no warheads and firing them into the sky over Victoria to draw attention to the Palestinian struggle. He talked of swimming to a nuclear submarine, seizing it and taking over the world. He talked of attacking a naval base with guns that he didn’t have and hijacking a train that didn’t exist.

Exasperated with the pair’s lack of focus, the police agents eventually steered them into bomb making.

But even here, the suspected terrorists were unable to buckle down. They didn’t have explosives or know how to get them. They spent most of their time playing video games.

They didn’t know when Canada Day was and didn’t have enough money to take the ferry to Victoria, or rent a motel room once they got there. That was provided by the Mounties.

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Bruce concluded the entire bomb plot couldn’t have happened if the RCMP hadn’t organized it.

In throwing out the guilty verdicts and staying proceedings against Nuttall and Korody, Bruce has made history. Although the Crown is appealing her decision, this still marks the first time the defence of entrapment has been used successfully in a terrorist case.

As such, Bruce’s ruling is a useful reminder that police and security services can easily overreach when fighting terrorism.

The point is not to lock up every loon with a big mouth. The point is to prevent real terror attacks. Yet there is also a bleak irony to this decision. As Bruce wrote, it was not illegal in 2013, when Nuttall and Korody were arrested, to express beliefs sympathetic to terrorists.

But thanks to the Bill C-51 amendments brought in last year by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and supported by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, that has changed.

Or, as the judge put it: “Recent amendments to the (criminal) code appear to criminalize the expression of beliefs that promote the commission of terrorist activities.”

In short, if these absurd and inappropriate terror charges had been laid today, they just might have stuck.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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