By Steve Mertl
29 May, 2015
With the so-called war on terror well into its second decade, are we any closer to decoding the allure of radicalism to some young people and finding ways to disrupt it?
The brief arrest of 10 young Quebecers who went to the same junior college and the seizure of their passports as they tried to leave the country a couple of weeks ago underscores the scope of the problem. It also demonstrates some success in identifying potential foreign fighters. The fact a parent alerted the RCMP suggests perhaps authorities are getting better at eliciting help from Muslim communities.
However, those who study radicalism and violent extremism are still debating what weight to give the basic motivating elements, facets that can help distinguish potential terrorists and expat Jihadis from people just blowing off steam.
And government apparently still hasn’t developed solid strategies to divert them from radicalism, though piecemeal programs exist.
Building an exact profile of a potential jihadi has proven complicated. You need a number of things to mesh together to move a young man or woman from being vaguely disgruntled to actively engaged. Which one tips the balance?
People in government and the security services, as well as academic researchers, have been hunting for “some magic psychological profile” for radicalization to violent extremism, says terrorism and national security expert Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa.
“The best research available so far suggests there’s no one profile,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “There’s no magic identity kit that would help our communities at risk or national security agencies identify people.
“There are a whole host of factors that seem to be at work and very few common elements. And where common elements exist they’re of such a sweeping nature that they’re not really sufficient indicators themselves to be helpful or provide early warning.”
There is no simple profile, agrees Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism and Society and one of Canada’s foremost experts on the subject.
“Having said that, disproportionately we are dealing with of course younger people,” he said. “We are dealing with younger people who are probably showing some evidence of identity struggles, trying to figure out who they are relative to their parents and their traditional background, especially if we’re dealing with the children of immigrants, which the majority are.”
Four Basic Elements in Violent Radicalization
Research points to four basic elements that factor into an individual’s violent radicalization, said Mohammed Hafez, chairman of the national security affairs department of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif.
They are the presence of personal and collective grievances, personal contacts and access to networks, a political or religious ideology and an environment and support structure that can enable action.
A lot of attention has focused recently on psychological vulnerabilities that can make people more susceptible to a radical message. But Hafez, who with U.S. Air Force Maj. Creighton Mullins has co-written a paper to be published this fall surveying the existing research, said small-group networks are the most important factor.
“I do think psychology, especially the psychology of small-group dynamics, is an under-explored area when it comes to radicalization,” he said.
The role of social media has come under scrutiny but Hafez said pre-existing radical networks, whether within a mosque or community centre or simply a group of individuals with a history of radicalism are most likely to generate radicals in a given area.
“That is, it’s not this individual sitting on the Internet reading social media feeds or watching YouTube that get radicalized,” he said. “Rather it’s those individuals who are connected to radicals, either through kinship ties, family or friendship ties, associates, neighbours
“Networks are the key to understanding radicalization because the network is the way that ideology is transmitted.These are the crowd that can introduce you to the ideology, drag you into it, socialize you, maybe even give you opportunities to go there.”
Ideology provides the narrative framework for whatever grievances a person might have, said Hafez. But it’s the network that connects them to the support system, from pointing them to web sites that deepen their knowledge to arranging travel to training camps abroad.
Radicalization is always a group process where small-group networks are enormously important, added Dawson.
“It’s very much a group social, psychological phenomenon from all of the individuals we’ve been tracking,” said Dawson, currently in research looking at radicals, their families, friends and associates.
“We haven’t encountered a situation yet where this already established viewpoint that this is a group process hasn’t been confirmed.”
Are the socially maladjusted or those with deep-seated mental problems more vulnerable to being drawn in?
“I think the overwhelming literature says no to that,” said Hafez. “This notion that these people have some psychological defect or pathology is not proven at all.”
Terror Groups Not Filled With Mentally Ill
People with problems may be attracted to radical groups, said Dawson, but that doesn’t mean terrorist organizations are peopled with head cases.
“You have people who are attracted out of psychological needs and instability, but statistically there’s no more presence of that than there is on your average football team or any kind of group or organization,” he said.
Research suggests a higher percentage of so-called lone-wolf terrorists do have mental-health issues but the majority are shockingly normal, said Dawson.
Growing up involves a quest for individual identity and that’s no different for young Muslims. It’s made more difficult sometimes when they live in western countries. They may see their parents as having made compromises, as hypocrites even, said Dawson. They feel guilty being tempted by girls, booze and drugs.
“They feel bad about it and feel confused,” he said. “They want a nice, clear moral answer about what’s right and wrong and what am I supposed to do?”
Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) has been skilled at providing that answer to the dilemma said Dawson.
“Along comes this beautiful narrative about how to be a pure, true Muslim on a global level, free of any kind of cultural attachments.”
Groups like al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab pitched their message to would-be foreign fighters to come and defend fellow Muslims who were being killed. But ISIS tells Muslims they can only live in a society made up of the faithful – their caliphate.
“So their emphasis is to get them looking around and seeing the corruption around them, seeing the decadence around them, feeling the moral repugnance to the world around them, and using that as an impetus to get them to want to leave,” said Dawson.
“Then they say, oh you can also have this great quest engaged in jihad.”
Just how much effect the tension between Quebec society and its Muslim community has had on radicalization in the province remains to be proven, said Wark. At most it may have provided the incentive for those who’ve been radicalized to take the next step to action.
Wark noted Quebec isn’t alone; Canadians from Ontario, the Prairies and B.C. have joined Islamist groups overseas. Dawson said Quebec was actually under-represented among foreign fighters until recently, compared with similarly populous Ontario.
But he said the bitter debate over accommodation, the aborted secularization law and much publicized incidents of racism probably helped give some Muslims the feeling they were living in a hostile environment, abetted by enthusiastic influencers online.
“You look in Quebec and you see all around you seeming hostility,” said Dawson. “It makes the pitch easier.”
Authorities Scrutinizing North African Immigrants to Quebec
The RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) worry that many immigrants to Quebec come from North African countries such as Tunisia and Libya, where ISIS has had success in recruiting fighters, said Wark. The concern is these new Canadians will also be especially vulnerable to radicalization.
“I think that fear is overwrought and is reflecting more international trends than what’s really going on in Quebec,” said Wark. “But it’s something that they’re looking at.”
The techniques to counter radical influences have had to evolve. Classical intelligence-gathering is still a powerful tool, said Wark. But reaching out to and engaging with Muslim communities offers hope of spotting warning signs and trends before being forced to head off someone at the airport.
The challenge, he said, is creating trust between the community and authorities, especially CSIS, which has had a reputation of heavy-handedness.
“It does seem to be the case that for Muslim communities in Canada there’s much more willingness to engage in a uniformed police force as opposed to a secret intelligence service,” said Wark.
The challenge extends to communities adopting counter-terrorism and de-radicalization strategies without ramping up tension among their members.
Some Muslim communities, notably in Winnipeg and Montreal, have set up intervention programs. But Dawson said Ottawa has not come through with with a national program promised in January to help reintegrate would-be jihadis after their passports are seized.
“We have absolutely nothing in place in Canada to deal with them,” he said. “We have no set program, no place to send them, no counsellors to direct them to.”
The RCMP has been given responsibility for the program, which used to be called Countering Violent Extremism. A request to RCMP headquarters for information on its status received no response.
Dawson said he has a copy of the pamphlet the Mounties have created for the program their are no specifics beyond platitudes about promoting core values and working together to disrupt terrorism.
“It’s just a bunch of nice sounds,” he said.
Limits to What Government Can Do On De-Radicalization
Wark said there are limits to what the federal government can do. The best approach is for Ottawa to work behind the scenes while local communities provide the services.
“The state has to leave a bit of a gap between itself and those community programs in order to allow those community programs to have sufficient legitimacy,” he said.
Dawson agrees with that, noting the RCMP has begun planning to work with agencies in a couple of cities but won’t give details.
“The agents of the message have to have credibility, which usually means that it has to be somebody not representing the government but coming from some other context,” he said.
But a national program can help by providing a hub for funding, advice, consultation and access to experts on things like social work and media strategies, he said.
“The government could play a crucial role as a kind of managing resource unit to initiate and help guide local communities to form their own agencies to respond,” said Dawson.
Most important, though, any program has to be there before the vulnerable become enmeshed in radical networks, he said.
“Preferably if you had such a system set up, somebody notifies you and intervention can start to happen before they want to leave for the airport, not afterwards,” said Dawson. “Because afterwards it’s going to be pretty hard to convince these kids to drop their views.”