What's the difference between a harmless idiot and a dangerous jihadi?
For Mohamed Hersi, the answer is 10 years in jail. Last week, the 28-year-old former security guard became the first Canadian to be convicted of trying to join a terrorist group abroad. The judge slapped him with the maximum sentence.
Mr. Hersi's case is a challenge for civil libertarians like me. He didn't plot to commit any crimes on Canadian soil. Instead, he dreamed of joining terrorists abroad. The judge decided that was enough to make him a national security threat. His lawyer says he's guilty of nothing more than a "thought crime."
The problem of what to do with would-be jihadis is plaguing every Western government. More than a hundred Canadians have gone abroad to fight, and those are just the ones we know about. Some will come back with an advanced degree in jihadism – and then what?
Some people argue that these young men must be offered decent opportunities in life. But most of them aren't outsiders, misfits or losers. They're ordinary guys who happen to nurse murderous fantasies of holy war, martyrdom and glory. That was Mr. Hersi. Canada was very good to him. But he wasn't grateful.
Mr. Hersi was four when his family fled Somalia. They came to Canada as refugees. He grew up in public housing, but had no trouble getting into university. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in health studies and psychology. He seemed to have a lot going for him. But he didn't see it that way. "I realize this country has no future for me," he told the undercover cop who befriended him.
Plenty of young Somali men are drawn to the jihadi life back home. Two of Mr. Hersi's high-school friends joined al-Shabab, the terrorist group, and one was killed. Mr. Hersi – a middle-of-the-road guy, according to his family – was picked up in 2011 just as he was about to board a flight to Cairo.
"How do you rehabilitate an already privileged man for whom neither love nor learning has any meaning?" asked Deena Baltman, the Ontario Superior Court judge who sentenced him. "He has been a committed jihadist for many years, and he is prepared to renounce his mother's love for the cause."
To complicate matters, some of the most ardent recruits are converts to Islam. The star of a new propaganda video from Syria is Andre Poulin, formerly of Timmins, Ont. "Before Islam, I was like any other regular Canadian," he declared. "Life in Canada was good. But at the end of the day, it's still Dar al Kufr [Land of Disbelief]." The video shows Mr. Poulin being mowed down in a firefight and achieving martyrdom.
In fact, many foreign fighters are nothing more than cannon fodder – utterly dispensable to those who send them into battle. In truth, Mr. Hersi can count himself a lucky man. His chances of survival are far better behind bars in Canada than they would be fighting for al-Shabab.
We Canadians like to think we're insulated from terrorist threats from within. That's because nothing bad has ever happened to us. Luckily for us, our bad guys have all been intercepted well before they did something. And the stupid kids who run off to get themselves blown up are objects more of pity than of fear.
The Europeans don't have that luxury. The suspect arrested over the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels is a French-Algerian jihadi who spent time in Syria. In Norway, Jewish museums closed this weekend after threats of an imminent terrorist attack by jihadis coming from Syria.
It was easy to be a civil libertarian when nobody was trying to import holy war. It's a lot tougher now. And I doubt that many of us would shed a tear for Mr. Hersi.