Civil society and domestic radicalization

Defence & Human Security, News

By John Siebert
Executive Director, Project Ploughshares

A small number of Canadians have always been tempted to fight in wars and conflicts in far-off lands, but those currently traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, or to Africa and Afghanistan to join other violent extremist groups, are causing acute anxiety on the home front.

Developing strategies to prevent conversion to extremism, stop travel abroad to join extremist groups, and deal with would-be extremists on their return are given a high priority by police and intelligence services in Canada, as they should be. In the process, however, security services need to be cautious about purely punitive approaches to domestic radicalization that may prove counterproductive.

The government should acknowledge that using the law may seem like a quick and cheap fix, but ignoring the need for a more ‘sociological’ approach will cost more in the long run. (Momani & Dawson 2015)

Studies on homegrown terrorists indicate that civil society organizations potentially have a key role in programs that prevent conversion to extremism, and in reintegrating returning extremists who want to change their ways.

Daniel Gallant is a former neo-Nazi skinhead and now a social worker in Prince George, BC. He helps people leave extremist circles. He makes the point in a recent CBC article that the federal government should not over-emphasize Islamic extremism and let other groups off the hook. The author notes that Gallant thinks that the problem is made worse by the “government’s failure to label right-wing extremism, which is often motivated by beliefs of racial purity and white power, as terrorism.” Further, Gallant states that coming down hard on extremism can backfire.

“What we’re doing is creating a pressure-cooking atmosphere,” Gallant says. “It’s as if our government is saying, ‘let’s bring it to a boil, get ‘em out there and then nab them.”

In so doing, he says, “we’re asking for extremist responses.”

A 2012 RCMP report states that “inflammatory linkages between Islam and terrorism can serve to convince Muslims – both in the West and in the larger Islamic world – that the West is, in fact, their enemy.” (taken from Nasser 2015)

Identifying potential extremists

Throughout the world and across cultures, young men are the primary perpetrators and victims of gun violence, whether in wars or, more often, situations of armed violence related to guns, drugs, and thugs. Homegrown radicalized youth are only a tiny percentage of the small percentage of young men between the ages of 15 and 30 who resort to armed violence. Women are not immune, but are statistically much less likely to perpetrate gun violence. They suffer from domestic assault and are left alone with young families when their male partners are killed or imprisoned for violent acts.

Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, studies the formation of homegrown violent extremists. His research findings are largely based on after-the-fact, or after-the-prosecution, reviews of extremists’ own stories of transformation and commitment. What shared factors surface?

“We may never have a fully satisfactory answer, but the comparison of many cases of radicalization involving homegrown terrorism points to some similarities we need to explore.” (Dawson 2013)

According to Dawson, those similarities include:

  • Identity struggles that cause disorientation among adolescents and young adults. They are both trying to establish their separate or unique identities, while also wanting to fit in with their peers. This can lead to prolonged inner turmoil that may not be apparent to family and friends.
  • Individual quests for significance—they want to make a mark in the world.
  • Intercultural pressure that catches children, particularly of newer Canadians, between the strict social and moral systems of home and the more liberal pop culture all around them.
  • A strong orientation of right and wrong, black and white. They observe corruption in the general culture and search for a pure alternative.
  • Orientation to action, adventure, and risk are strong attractions.
  • Globalization facilitates the movement of people and goods, and access to new content and knowledge over the internet.
  • The discovery of a simple explanation or narrative that provides a grand solution to the inner turmoil and external problems they perceive.
  • Small group dynamics among peers that affirm action together.
  • A triggering event, private or public, that is consequential in symbolic ways to the person’s understanding of the struggle between good and evil.

Again, young women aren’t immune to these radicalizing factors, but succumb in far smaller numbers. Recent media reports, however, indicate that ISIS has called young women to join the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and some are answering.

Terrorism is a social activity and the path into violence is determined by social interaction as much as any political or religious programme. The question to ask about radicalisation is therefore not “who?” and still less “why?”, but “how?”. Security services like MI5 have now adapted profiling to focus on networks and processes, not characteristics that supposedly render an individual vulnerable. Families including existing or former militants are of a particular interest. American officials in Iraq say that the main predictor of extremism is having a brother active in extremism or in prison. (Burke 2011)

Countering extremism by civil society organizing

Looking at “some similarities we need to explore” is not a surefire checklist that can be used to predict particular cases of radicalization. The factors identified by Dawson do provide family, friends, and other adults with indications of what they should be watching for in young adults.

Group affiliation and mentoring figures are keys to radicalization—and to countering it. So, efforts should be made to anchor those youth who may be vulnerable to extremist ideologies or criminal gang affiliation into communities that offer alternatives for their energy and idealism.

We want young men in our country to stop becoming Islamic extremists and killing people….

There are basically three ways to respond to this problem.

The first approach is to make it illegal for these young men to hold extremist ideas…. Beyond obvious objections to the literal policing of thoughts, there is a practical problem with such laws…. In short, it has a track record of making things worse.

The second approach is to put different ideas in the minds of these vulnerable young men. This “counter-messaging” tactic is being tried by France and the United States…. There’s a basic problem with using government agencies and their proxies…. [These young men] already think the government is out to get them; this proves it.

The third approach is to reduce the number of young men who are vulnerable to these ideas…. Most either have spent time in the penal system, or have dropped out of school early (the two tend to go together). Keeping people from falling out of faith with civil society is often just a matter of keeping them in school…. It also happens to be the only approach with a solid history of success. (Saunders 2015)

Some interesting research, done through the Kanishka program funded by Public Safety Canada and elsewhere, again points to the key factor of peer and small group dynamics. The research results are still slim and the conclusions speculative, but they seem to suggest that the initial connection between an individual and other activists is key. Individuals are socialized into activism, either violent or nonviolent, by their initiating group.

Those who first get involved in nonviolent activism as a means of protest develop strong antibodies to violent action. They do not “progress” from nonviolent to violence activism. Instead, they are inoculated against violence and extremism. Even if they engage in nonviolent civil disobedience—breaking the law without injuring others or destroying property—these activists are virtually guaranteed not to become involved in violence and extremism.

An internal RCMP report’s portrayal of northern B.C. as one of two Canadian regions most vulnerable to violent, anti-pipeline extremists working with aboriginal radicals to sabotage “critical infrastructure” is “absolutely bizarre,” one of B.C.’s most outspoken First Nations leaders [Stewart Phillip] said Wednesday.

“Aside from New Brunswick, the most urgent anti-petroleum threat of violent criminal activity is in northern British Columbia, where there is a coalition of like-minded violent extremists who are planning criminal actions to prevent the construction of the pipeline.”

Phillip said he’s never met anyone prepared to engage in criminal activity since his association with the B.C. environmental movement began in the 1970s.

“Every day when you turn on the television, you witness insane acts on the part of disturbed people,” he said. “But to suggest there’s a very well-organized jihadist-style network out there that’s a threat to the Canadian public — in my experience this is absolutely not the case. I hate to say this, but this is Canada. Excuse me?”

He said First Nations fighting to protect the environment have strong allies across Canada, as well as the force of several Supreme Court of Canada judgments supporting their claims.

“If I were to move in that direction (towards recommending criminal acts), I think we’d quickly alienate the vast majority” of their supporters across Canada. (O’Neill 2015)

These tentative research findings point to two ways in which civil society organizations can counteract terrorism: 1) befriend and mentor youth vulnerable to violence and violent extremism; and 2) provide an alternative nonviolent formation process for those youth and young adults who want to change the world to conform to their ideals.

But what if the bellicose capacities of young men were summoned into existence by the perception of justice and injustice, the conviction that injustice has to be fought and justice upheld? I’d argue that these perceptions exist in every society. The point is not to try to get rid of righteous indignation but to convert it to the service of a view of justice that’s sane and reasonable—in our world, liberal democracy…. We have to remember that, at bottom, our own liberal democratic civilization has never been premised solely on material well-being and comfort. (Newell 2013)

Hints for redirection of official resources for counterterrorism

This research could also offer guidance on one of the most vexing problems faced by police and security and intelligence agencies: how to make best use of scarce resources. Only police states have enough police! In freedom-respecting democracies there are not enough police to watch everyone. How do they choose whom to target?

Recent public release of security services documentation in Canada indicates that the RCMP and CSIS deploy considerable resources in surveillance of groups advocating for nonviolent alternatives or organizing peaceful demonstrations. These include peace and disarmament organizations as well as environmental and other social justice groups that are committed to changing government policy and Canadian society, but are clearly nonviolent and law-abiding.

The rationale for this surveillance is understandable—if you accept certain presuppositions on the process of radicalization. If you posit that civil society groups consist of discontented people wanting to make some very basic changes in Canada, then you can expect that some of them will become frustrated at the lack of progress and graduate to more violent actions to get attention and advance their causes. From this perspective, these groups are the seedbeds or hothouses in which radicalism grows.

But the recent research on terrorist formation already discussed says that this is not where violent extremists come from. Readily identifiable, activist civil society organizations are simply easy targets or low-hanging fruit for surveillance. Using scarce resources to monitor these groups is wasteful.

Further, demonizing dissent–“you are either with us or with the terrorists”–may close opportunities for young people and more specifically young men to be socialized into nonviolent and democratic forms of dissent.

As Stephane Pressault of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women points out, the federal government’s conflation of Islam and terrorism is having tangible effect on young Muslims here. “In fact, this language is discouraging Muslim youth to be civically and socially engaged for fear of being labelled,” he says. (Nasser 2015)

Civil society provides a primary counter-extremist service by demonstrating alternative ideas and means of voicing dissent without recourse to violence. We should be fostering more aggressive civil society nonviolent action: research, policy engagement, demonstrations, even civil disobedience if nonviolent. Youth need to see alternative options to advocate for change and be encouraged to join the struggle.

Restorative options for reintegrating extremists

Finally, another potential role for civil society in counterterrorism is to model rehabilitative and restorative options for working with extremists, whether they remain in Canada or venture overseas and return.

How will Canada deal with the Canadian returnees from IS when IS leadership is killed or IS is displaced from the territory it now occupies?

The provisions of Bill C-51 attempt to stem the supply side of terrorism, by censoring online conversations and beefing up CSIS and RCMP capacities. But the bill does not have a strategy to tackle the demand side of the problem, such as de-radicalization programs, building capacities and resilient communities through political empowerment, and supporting alternative narratives in vulnerable demographic groups. (Momani & Dawson 2015)

Among the dozens of young men and, increasingly, young women (if media stories are accurate) currently leaving Canada for Syria and Iraq will be those who eventually want to come back. Some will continue to pose a threat to the safety and well-being of Canada. Others will deeply regret their choices and renounce extremism and violence. Do we simply throw all of them in jail?

A civil society response to Omar Khadr’s incarceration provides an example of an alternative. Various professors at King’s University College in Edmonton have been providing high school- and college-level instruction to Khadr in Guantanamo Bay and now in Alberta while he serves out his sentence. Do we as a society want him eventually to be on our streets as an embittered soul without options, or a student who has his high school equivalency, with options to pursue higher education and work when his sentence is completed?

The Harper government holds the view Khadr is a dangerous, unrepentant terrorist, brought up in the notorious Khadr family that had close ties to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

That is not the view of teachers at King’s, nor of Khadr’s psychiatrist from Guantanamo, retired U.S. military officer Stephen Xenakis, who visited the prisoner this fall. They see him as a thoughtful, committed student who wants to resume a productive life in the community.

King’s English professor Arlette Zinck, who sent lesson plans to Guantanamo for years, says Khadr’s favourite novel last fall was Edmonton author Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, the story of a Manitoba pacifist Mennonite community in the Second World War….

“He’s remarkably hopeful about Canada and human rights in general,” said [history professor] Van Arragon, adding he worries whether Canada will live up to that view when the prisoner is finally released. “I hope he’ll be left alone and he can live a quiet life.” (Pratt 2013)

Other examples of innovative thinking and supportive civil society response are programs such as Circles of Support and Accountability, which assist in reintegrating sexual offenders into society following their release from prison. Not all attempts are successful, but many are, and we are a better, safer society for it. Civil society organizations can help to meet the challenge of reintegrating extremists who want to change.

[Circles of Support and Accountability] is a community-based reintegration program that holds federal inmates with histories of sexual offending accountable for the harm they have caused while supporting them through their reintegration back to community at the end of their sentences. CoSA works primarily with those who have reached their warrant expiry date (WED) and are returning to the community with little or no supervision or support.

Circles was birthed in Ontario over 20 years ago and is a model that has been proven effective in reducing harm and recidivism. Other countries have adopted the model given its proven track record.

While jail is always part of the punishment process for offenders who have committed serious sexual offences, it is critical to remember that 95% of offenders, including those with sexual offending histories, return to the community at some point. (Mennonite Central Committee 2015)


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