In Depth

Mentally ill or time-bomb terrorist? Restrictions rejected for accused ISIS sympathizer

Precedent-setting case tests evidence called to prove possibility Khalid Ahmad Ibrahim may commit a terrorism offence.

Judge says criminal law a 'blunt instrument' to curb disturbing behaviour of mentally ill man

A search of the 2,300 images on Khalid Ahmad Ibrahim's cell phone turned up disturbing images of 'beheadings and corpses, firearms, bombings and known terrorists.' (Reuters)

Everyone agrees Khalid Ahmad Ibrahim is a deeply troubled man.

But is he a potential terrorist — or mentally ill?

A ticking time-bomb — or a misunderstood immigrant with an obsession with Middle Eastern violence and a police file full of unsettling incidents?

A man who deserves to have his liberty restricted for the safety of all — or one who deserves treatment for pretty much the same reason?

'A blunt instrument'

Those questions were at the heart of the dilemma facing New Westminster Provincial Court Judge Therese Alexander as she wrestled with a Crown application to place Ibrahim under a peace bond on the grounds that he may commit a terrorism offence for the benefit of ISIS.

As she pointed out in a ruling released at the end of January, quoting another judge who had to wrestle with a similar decision: "Nobody wants to be blamed if something goes wrong."

The federal Crown's main witness was an expert on risk assessment. But the defence pointed out that he had never met or spoken with Khalid Ibrahim. (CBC)

Alexander decided Ibrahim needs medicine more than monitoring.

"There is no suggestion on the evidence presented that there is any imminent possibility that the Defendant may commit a terrorism offence, for the benefit of ISIS or otherwise," Alexander wrote.

"It is apparent that the Defendant continues to struggle with mental health issues, as do many other individuals in this community.  The criminal law is a blunt instrument. There are other options which may be more effective to address mental health, poverty, cultural and social issues."

'Courageous' decision?

Alexander dismissed the Crown's application for a recognizance pursuant to section 810.011 of the Criminal Code.

Her 27-page decision highlights the challenge of weighing individual liberties against a society's right to security.

"An order under this provision should not be made lightly," the decision read.

"The consequence of such an order is a significant curtailment of individual liberty and may result in a lifelong stigma of being branded a suspected terrorist and the ongoing restrictions that may entail."

Ibrahim's lawyer calls the judge's decision "courageous."

But David Ferguson says the case is also precedent setting because it's the first time a defendant has contested evidence presented in a terrorism peace bond application.

He says defendants usually enter into the bonds willingly, as a way to deal with impending charges.

'Trying to cut corners'

The bar for a section 810.011 application is low. Prosecutors have to prove on the balance of probabilities that an objective basis exists to believe someone may commit a terrorist act.

Ferguson focused on the Crown's main witness, an RCMP behavioural scientist who works as a criminal and geographic profiler.

Despite wading through thousands of pages of reports, Sgt. Douglas Craig had never actually met Ibrahim. The Crown didn't call any psychologists, professionals or experts who had spoken with the accused.

As part of evidence presented in court, the Crown claimed that a search of Khalid Ibrahim's cellphone turned up graphic pictures of violence and known terrorists. (The Associated Press)

"When the state's going to attempt to infringe someone's rights significantly — when they're attempting to put a label on someone as serious as the terrorist label — they have to cross their 'T's and dot their 'I's," Ferguson said.

"And in this case ... they were in many ways trying to cut corners."

Looking for patterns

Ibrahim came to Canada with his family from northern Iraq in 2005. He speaks Kurdish, Arabic and Russian but very little English. He's also a non-practising Muslim.

The Crown's case was compelling: Ibrahim had allegedly yelled "Allah Akbar" in public and threatened to stab Canadians. Two former roommates claimed he said he "wanted to kill Canadian people by cutting off their heads and that he wanted to join ISIS."

A search of his cellphone turned up graphic images of "beheadings and corpses, firearms, bombings and known terrorists."

But the defence claimed Craig's "perspective is tainted by his exclusive focus on the risk of terrorism;" the police officer conceded on cross-examination that he looks for patterns in behaviour.

"The Defence submits that it is much easier to find those patterns when the evidence and supporting materials are not complicated by thorough examination and scrutiny," the judge wrote.  

"It submits that the Crown case has been tailored to conform to a particular narrative, rejecting or according little weight to other explanations such as mental illness, social isolation unemployment and poverty."

Different lens; different pattern

In concluding Ibrahim doesn't represent a terrorist threat, Alexander viewed the allegations against him through a less jaundiced lens.

One of the roommates who complained about him was allegedly a gang member and the other said to be a known liar; a police entry claiming Ibrahim drew a gun turned out instead to involve a hammer in a leather case; yet another police file failed to mention "the family's complaint of cultural insensitivity for the police entering the apartment with their shoes on."

There was no evidence Ibrahim had made contact with ISIS or that he was a sympathizer.

He told police interviewers he despised ISIS. He was asked about a picture of him in black clothing: "He said he was wearing black athletic clothes and trying to look strong. He likened his appearance to Israeli Special Forces."

Alexander concluded that Ibrahim's behaviour was not unlike that of many of the people who pass through B.C.'s courtroom on a regular basis.

"I find that his reactions are not unlike other individuals facing the stress of serious allegations in an unfamiliar court environment. I find his agitation is more a reflection of his frustration overlaid with undiagnosed mental illness."

The Crown says they have 30 days to appeal the verdict. They would not comment on the decision.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.