Resilience and the politics of trust

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Building public confidence has emerged as a central component of Ottawa’s counterterrorism strategy

Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 2 Summer 2015

As a slow but steady stream of mostly young Canadians continue to be drawn to the cause of violent extremism, we are faced with the question of what more can be done to stop the flow. In the shadows of the political spotlight on Bill-C51, which is aimed at disrupting terrorist threats and efforts to recruit Canadians (see PMC 2015a), is a quiet and ongoing effort to intervene earlier in the radicalization process, including a new Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to work with parents, youth, mosques, and Muslim community leaders to facilitate early identification and intervention into the radicalization process (Hall 2015).
This strategy flows from the concept of resilience in Canada’s counterterrorism strategy: an approach aimed at preventing terrorism by fostering societal resistance to violent extremism and mobilizing civil society to support and contribute to security measures (PSC 2013, especially pp. 10, 13). To this end, the RCMP claims that “it will work with families of ‘vulnerable youth’ who are experiencing behavioural changes” as well as educate Canadians “on the role of law enforcement and the responsibilities that they, in turn, have in safeguarding Canada” (Cullen 2014).
Although relatively uncontroversial, this plan, when scrutinized, raises concerns, not for what it does, but for what it does not do: create a trusting political space in which long-term protective measures can be effective.

The double-edged sword of fear
Trust is critical to efforts to prevent and disrupt radicalization. The Air India case has been recognized as an example of the problems that can arise when communities have insufficient trust in policing and intelligence (Senate of Canada 2011). Thus building public trust and confidence has emerged as a central component of the government’s prevention and resilience strategy (PSC 2013).
Emphasis is placed on clarifying public understanding of how the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) function in the effort to win over the “hearts and minds” of communities perceived as vulnerable to extremism (Quan 2013), and encourage information sharing so that law enforcement can identify extremists earlier (Gendron 2006; Toews 2010). Indeed, such community intelligence has been critical to counterterrorism successes, including identification of the Via Rail plot, as well as the recent disruption of plans of 10 young Montreal residents to travel to Syria.

However, trust is a relational concept and community trust in government is only one side of the coin. The government must also extend trust to communities. This has not happened. Instead, there is an over-reliance by government on the use and promotion of fear to achieve counterterrorism goals. The use of imagery that includes “jihadist monster’s tentacles” reaching into the heart of Canada (PMC 2015b), as well as ongoing references linking Islam to jihadis and terrorism, breed suspicion and alienate the communities from whom cooperation is sought (Arsenault 2015; Plecash 2015).

Further, elements of Bill-C51 (HofC Canada 2015), such as an expansion of pre-criminal activities linked to terrorism, including elements of speech, and plans for greater information-sharing between the RCMP and CSIS send a chilling message to those who might seek help if they suspected a friend or family member were being radicalized. While the CVE strategy is supposed to apply “only to those who have not yet crossed the line into terrorism” (Bell 2014), it is not clear where that line is, and who decides when it has been crossed. When questioned about “how to distinguish between teens messing around in their basements and someone who is radicalized,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper clearly indicated that it would be “a serious offence” in either event (Payton 2015).

Although sometimes effective in the short run, fear as a tool of policy is a double-edged sword that over time causes suspicion, cynicism, and disengagement among citizens, destroying the very trust that successful prevention of terrorism depends on (see Furedi 2005, p. 2).

Creating a safe political space
To encourage individuals to share concerns with police and intelligence authorities and to confront violent ideals, it is imperative for the government to foster a safe political space within which civil society can act. Fear must be replaced with trust. Specifically, the government must demonstrate its own trust in the public by sharing information, by allowing civil society to take responsibility for initiatives, and by encouraging and engaging with legitimate dissent.

Trust communities with information: For communities to effectively resist violent extremism and intervene in suspected cases of radicalization, the government must trust them with information regarding specific threats. While many efforts are made to facilitate the flow of information from particular communities to police and intelligence agencies—indeed, both the Via Rail plot and the Montreal 10 case emerged as a result of this type of sharing—this flow does not travel both ways. Information provided to the public is frustratingly inadequate. Indeed, often the family and friends of those suspected of terrorism learn about the radicalization in their midst only after it is too late to intervene and provide the type of positive influence envisioned by the RCMP’s prevention program (Clancy 2015; Arsenault 2014; Lofaro 2014).

Trust civil society to act: If interventions aimed at protecting people from violent radicalization are to succeed, then civil society must be trusted to help steer these initiatives. However, to date communities have been relegated almost exclusively to the role of provider of information to police and intelligence operations. A prominent example of the current lack of trust in community initiatives is the adversarial stand that the RCMP took toward a counter-radicalization handbook for parents that was developed by a group of national Islamic associations (Globe and Mail, 2014). Civil society responses to extremism cannot be micro-managed. Indeed, lessons learned from similar initiatives indicate that it is critical that they exist as more than an extension of government views and programs if they are to maintain legitimacy (HofC UK 2010; Helmus, York & Chalk 2013).

Trust the public to engage in debate and legitimate dissent: The battle of ideas will not be won through policing and intelligence, but only through open, public debate. Debate and activism must not be used as reasons for greater police scrutiny. Individuals and organizations will hesitate to engage in the community-based responses to extremism envisioned by resilience if they fear that they are casting themselves under the watchful eye of counterterrorism enforcers (Helmus, York & Chalk 2013).

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the fear and animosity currently being whipped up in the political realm are dulling debate by encouraging self-censorship (Arsenault 2015). Likewise, it is critical that the government not use the fear of counterterrorism surveillance to quell legal and legitimate avenues for political protest and dissent. When trusted and respected, these key elements of the democratic process provide a nonviolent arena in which disaffected individuals can express themselves, engage civically, and seek change.

Indeed, this is the very goal of a flagship project to prevent extremism—the Common Ground Project run by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women—which seeks to build a sense of citizenship among Muslim youth by developing skills for nonviolent civic engagement “to prevent the further alienation of Muslim youth and provide alternatives for them that are more attractive than those drawing them to disengagement from mainstream society” (CCMW 2010, p. 4.) But this will only work if there is a safe political space in which to exercise civic and political activism.

A return to protection
These arenas of trust and political freedom speak more to the long-term desire for Canadians to withstand and challenge violent ideologies than to the more immediate goal of seeking community assistance in policing and intelligence efforts. But the two reinforce one another when there is mutual trust. While fear can be seen as a double-edged sword, trust operates like compounding interest. Placing greater trust in civil society to be resilient and providing a safe political space to exercise it will in turn foster the trust that will lead communities to work with policing and intelligence agencies when confronted with a specific threat.

But being able to extend this trust to the public requires a deeper shift in how the government thinks about prevention. The one-sided view of trust is itself a symptom of an interpretation of prevention as almost exclusively pre-emption: on stopping Canadians from becoming terrorists. This approach presumes an eventual emergence of enmity from so-called vulnerable communities (Anderson 2011): it casts Canadians as both friends and enemies, as citizens and suspects. And this constant fear and uncertainty make it difficult to extend trust to those communities.
But resilience—the logic that currently drives much of Canada’s counterterrorism efforts—is not about prevention through anticipation and pre-emption, but rather the “capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest” (Wildavsky 1988, p.77). In terms of radicalization and the threat posed by violent ideals, this involves placing trust in the long-term protective capacities within society to withstand, resist, and challenge: of seeing all Canadians as citizens to be protected rather than potential future enemies to be feared.

It is common wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But when it comes to domestic counterterrorism efforts, the need to replace fear with trust necessitates a shift in focus to protection.

Resilience is messy. And never perfect. It does not eliminate the need for police and intelligence capabilities to disrupt those intent on violence. Some will slip through the cracks of whatever protection is put in place. But protection based on trust will shelter many who are vulnerable.



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—–. 2014. Mother of dead Canadian jihadi launches de-radicalization effort. CBC News. September 9.

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—–. 2015b. PM welcomes German chancellor Angela Merkel to Ottawa. February 9.

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Wildavsky, Aaron. 1988. Searching for Safety. Transaction Publishing.


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