The case of Aaron Driver, the 24-year-old Muslim convert killed by police before he could carry out a terrorist attack against a major urban centre, has again focused public attention on Canada’s capacities to combat radicalization.
Below I offer recommendations and note some hurdles likely to be encountered as Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale rolls out his plans for our country’s first national counter-radicalization centre, for which $35 million over five years was earmarked in the last budget.
1. Researchers have offered up a dizzying and contradictory array of theories on why and how individuals become radicalized. A new working paper by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society suggests that young men in North America and Europe who become violent Islamic extremists are mainly driven by religious ideas, and are not necessarily those on the fringes of society. In contrast, Ahmad Mansour, a respected Palestinian-Israeli dedicated to countering Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism, posits that many Islamists are using religion only as a means to an end. The real temptation, he argues, is a sudden advancement of position accompanied by the feeling of belonging to an elite group. Whether these two theories can somehow be reconciled is not the issue. The point is that because there is no single pathway towards radicalization, there is also no single de-radicalization method. Programs will therefore need to be highly individualized.
2. The government cannot rely on counter-radicalization as its sole or even primary counter-terrorism technique. Canada must use a combination of “hard security” and “softer security” approaches, complementary measures aimed at preventing or undoing the radicalization process, impeding those who plan terrorist attacks, and responding with tough criminal penalties when necessary.
3. One of the first tasks of the centre must not only be to create a de-radicalization program, but also to agree on how to identify those in need of the program. Driver had come to the attention of the RCMP previously but was apparently thought to have tempered his views and was not being closely monitored. Former CSIS official Phil Gurski explains that terrorist groups like Islamic State encourage their followers to use deception as a tactic; thus, authorities must assume that extremists who claim to have reformed are liars until proven otherwise.
4. My colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, has emphasized the need for improved counter-messaging to challenge the appeal of terrorist groups. The Islamic State in particular possesses an impressive propaganda machine that has helped to inspire up to 31,000 people from around the world to leave their homes and fight for the organization. Counter-narrative campaigns should form part of Canada’s official de-radicalization efforts. Even if they fail to persuade current supporters to abandon the cause, the campaigns can still be effective if they serve a disruptive purpose, like forcing the terrorist entity to expend resources on refutation.
5. North America must catch up with Europe in its study of anti-Semitism as an indicator of radicalization. Jytte Klausen explained in a Foreign Affairs article that, “Combating the new threat of anti-Semitism in Europe is inextricably linked to the fight against terrorist extremism.” She believes that “in Europe, religion does not drive young Muslims and converts to Islam to the flame of jihad. Hatred does. And terrorists and their supporters have exploited anti-Semitism to justify their violence.” Meanwhile, Günther Jikeli, a professor at Indiana University, recently published a book called Muslim Antisemitism in Europe. Why Young Urban Males Say They Don’t Like Jews.
Canada needs to invest in similar polling and research to understand and combat this hatred, a central component of the jihadist mind.
A federal counter-radicalization centre will not be a simple initiative, and positive results are not guaranteed. “Community outreach” may not be enough to change the hearts and minds of people attracted to a group that lauds raping and beheading. From a national security perspective, there are challenging days ahead.
Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.