Civil society can play a key role in preventing and dealing with domestic radicalization

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 1 Spring 2013

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 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.

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.

Identifying potential extremists

Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo, studies the formation of homegrown violent extremists. He notes the following recurring characteristics in convicted extremists’ stories:

  • Identity struggles that cause disorientation among adolescents and young adults who are trying to establish their separate or unique identities, while also wanting to fit it 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 of newer Canadians between the strict social and moral systems of home and the more liberal pop culture all around them.
  • Moral significance—a strong orientation of right and wrong, black and white; observation of corruption in the general culture; and a search for a pure alternative.
  • Orientation to action; adventure and risk are strong attractions.
  • Globalization acting to facilitate the movement of people and goods, and access to 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.

Countering extremism by civil society

Belonging to a group and mentoring figures are keys to radicalization—and to countering it. Efforts must be made to anchor youth that are vulnerable to extremist ideologies or criminal gang affiliation into communities that offer alternatives for their energy and idealism.

Some interesting research, done through the Kanishka program funded by Public Safety Canada and elsewhere, suggests that people 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 violent activism. Instead, they are inoculated against violence and extremism. Even when 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 violent activity.

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.

Redirecting official resources for counterterrorism

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.

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 of radicalism.

But recent research on terrorist formation, as discussed above, says that this is not where violent extremists come from. Readily identifiable civil society organizations are simply easy targets or low-hanging fruit for surveillance. Using scarce security 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.

Civil society provides a primary counter-extremist service by demonstrating alternative ideas and means of voicing dissent without recourse to violence. We should be encouraging more aggressive civil society nonviolent action: research, policy engagement, demonstrations, and civil disobedience that is nonviolent.

Restorative options for reintegrating extremists

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

Many of the young men and women currently leaving Canada for Syria and Iraq will want to come back. Some will continue to pose a threat. Others will deeply regret their choices and renounce extremism and violence. Do we simply throw all of them in jail?

The Omar Khadr story offers an alternative. 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 (Pratt 2014). This offers the prospect of Khadr’s pursuing higher education or getting a job when his sentence is completed.

Another example of innovative support by civil society is a program called Circles of Support and Accountability, which assists reintegration of sexual offenders into society following their release from prison. Not all these attempts are successful, but many are, and we are a better, safer society for it.



Dawson, Lorne. 2013. How terrorism grows at home. The Globe and Mail, April 23.

Mennonite Central Committee. 2015. Circles of Support and Accountability Fact Sheet.

Pratt, Sheila. 2014. Omar Khadr fills prison time with education. Edmonton Journal, January 3.

Public Safety Canada. 2015. Kanishka Project.

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