The federal government has officially launched a new centre to do “as much as humanly possible to prevent radicalization to violence before tragedy strikes,” but some critics worry the money won’t go to organizations doing the real, ground-level work of deradicalizing young people.
A year and a half after taking office, the Liberal government has finally come through on its commitment to start up a centre tasked with countering radicalization. The centre has already funded ten projects, and is in the process of trying to find more worthwhile research and outreach programs.
But unlike the deradicalization centre in Montreal, which does research and offers counselling to radicalized people and helps them reintegrate into society — and was in high demand before it even opened — the Ottawa-based Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence won’t itself be involved in direct intervention and prevention work.
In February, however, the federal government did say that the centre would have a hands on approach to “develop intervention programs.” Most of the funding, however, is directly targeted to research and data collection. Four of the projects are “direct intervention” — mostly focusing on using social media to combat radicalization online. Two of the funding projects are going to the Ontario Provincial Police, to help building an online information hub and to translate a training manual into French.
The senior director of the centre, Ritu Banerjee, said that running programs simply isn’t their job. “We’re trying to be a centre of excellence,” she told VICE News. “We’re not trying to do programming, but we want to support programming across Canada.” That support could be through research, data, or policy.
The money for the centre, $35 million over five years, isn’t new. It comes from last year’s budget.
There are fears that Ottawa is not equipped to deal with the numbers of Canadians who developed sympathies to the Islamic State in recent years, including those who travelled to Syria and Iraq and train and fight with the group. Some have already returned from the fight, and there may be more to come.
“Let’s get away from definitional issues and basic ABCs of radicalization to violence. That train left the station a decade ago.”
On top of the centre, Ottawa will appoint a special advisor in the coming months to meet with youth, communities and other stakeholders to help develop a national strategy to counter radicalization. The centre also maintains a database of research and resources on radicalization and extremism.
Some experts, like former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski — who now runs his own consulting firm, which deals with radicalization — are perplexed about why it took the government as long as it did to launch a funding mechanism.
“I think this is a really good idea, but the devil is in the details, and the descriptions are far too vague,” he said.
The previous government’s grants, which totalled just $10 million were targeted towards issues of terrorism more broadly. Those grants were distributed from the government, whereas the Trudeau government will have the centre handing out the money. Gurksi didn’t such much of an impact from those grants on his work.
But not all of the projects will do much hands-on work of dealing with those who sympathize with the Islamic State, or even those who went over to fight with the terrorist group. Gurski points to one project getting funding, aimed at developing “indicators and guidelines” for successful counter-radicalization initiatives.
“Develop indicators? Excuse me? We had indicators 15 years ago. If we don’t have indicators now, what have we been doing for the past 20 years?” he said. “I’m getting very tired, frankly, of theoretical works on what is radicalization? In a lot of cases, a lot of what you’re telling us 1) we already know, or b) is wrong.”
“Let’s get away from definitional issues and basic ABCs of radicalization to violence. That train left the station a decade ago,” he said.
Amarnath Amarasingam, whose project on foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo is receiving funding, worries that small community organizations doing grassroots work will struggle to get the government’s support.
“It’s often the case around the world that organizations that are already wealthy get all the money because they have the institutional structure to compete,” he said. “I hope the government finds a way to help groups that need it more.”
“Unless we have these programs in place, we are actually letting down families.”
Others, who have worked with radicalized youth on the ground, aren’t convinced that putting government funds to fund direct intervention initiatives makes any sense, period.
Ibrahim Hindy, an imam who has counselled youth at risk of becoming radicalized, says government-backed intervention programs have no credibility among them, since groups like the Islamic State preach to youth that “every government is evil,” and by extension, so is every institution that takes government money.
It’s common for young people at risk of radicalization to violence to struggle with mental health issues and family problems, said Hindy, who regularly counsels them and wants to see the government fund things like mental health supports, youth employment opportunities, and social supports instead that communities can tap into.
Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and current professor at Carleton University said that, while Canada is better placed to tackle these issues than others, counter-radicalization and disengagement programs as potentially disastrous “landmines” if they’re not executed properly.
“There is the police, but not everybody wants to go to the police because police are there to prosecute, they’re not there to deradicalize people,” she said. “Unless we have these programs in place, we are actually letting down families.”
Among the research projects receiving funding so far is one at the University of Waterloo on the perspectives of Westerners who support or join violent extremist movements in Iraq and Syria and their use of social media, a project looks at the Canadian public’s knowledge and perception on radicalization and hate speech, and an initiative that looks at what’s needed for frontline professionals to be able to identify, assess and engage people who are at risk of being influenced by extremist groups online.
Two of the direct intervention initiatives already being funded by the centre include Project SOMEONE, which promotes the use of social media and art in schools to help young people resist radicalization, prevent hate speech, and become more media literate; and two projects to support the OPP in creating resources to train law enforcement officers and community partners in countering radicalization.