CSIS spies studied 100 radicalized Canadians, and here's what they found

Canada's spies say new fitness routines and switching to encrypted messaging apps could be signs a radicalized person is about to become violent
Canadian Press

A number of signs, like someone changing their physical fitness routine and using encryption apps like Signal, can serve as red flags that a radicalized person is getting ready to carry out a terrorist attack or travel to join a terrorist group, according to a new study by Canada’s spy agency.

On Monday, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) released a guide on the process of mobilization to terrorist activity. It doesn’t address why a person becomes radicalized, but analyzes how they go on to engage in violence.

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“Not all extremists progress from words to deeds,” said the analysis entitled Mobilization To Violence (Terrorism) Research - key findings. “Many people can espouse extremist ideas but never undertake extremist activities.”

CSIS studied about 100 people who mobilized to violence in Canada, most of whom travelled overseas to join terrorist groups, and found that the process takes an average of 12 months.

In its report, the agency attempts to distinguish between the “talker” and the “walker,” pointing to “indicators” like someone changing their physical fitness routine, taking financial preparations, and hiding their communications from authorities or people around them, as signs that someone could be mobilizing towards violence.

Financial activities to watch for could include “maxing out a credit card or putting personal belongings up for sale in order to raise money for the intended activity” and getting rid of personal belongings.

In the final months, before an attack or an attempt to travel, the mobilizing person might start getting their personal affairs in order — repaying debts, for example, writing wills, or giving away “worldly possessions,” according to the analysis.

Buying supplies, scoping out a target, or recording a martyrdom video are all signs that someone may be planning an attack and has mobilized to violence, it said.

They might also want to hide their activities from law enforcement or people around them by using software to encrypt their communications, inventing a story to explain why they’re leaving Canada, or creating an alter ego online.

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The agency found that the indicators tended to appear in clusters, but the process differed from one person to the next. They also found that the speed of mobilization varies, depending on age — people under the age of 21 and minors mobilize more quickly than adults, as it often requires nothing but a passport, plane tickets, and a cover story.

“Young adults and minors generally have fewer obstacles to overcome in their process of mobilization and they also tend to mobilize to violence in groups, which can also help them overcome any existing obstacles quickly by pooling resources and expertise,” said the analysis.

But young people face special issues, like inaccessible passports and limited amounts of money, for example, and exhibit “behaviours typical of this age bracket’ to resolve them, like selling off a video game console, as opposed to a car.

Eighty percent of minors and young adults under the age of 20 mobilize in groups of two or more, CSIS found. Young women, in particular, rarely go through the process alone.

The process of group mobilization is faster than people acting alone, according to CSIS, as members can work together, giving each other money and things like cell phones, making the indicators harder to spot.

“In a group scenario, there may be individuals with various areas of expertise or resources, that when added together, the group as a whole possesses the capability to engage in terrorist activities, however each individual on their own does not,” said the analysis.

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The study also found that 27 percent of Canadians who had mobilized to violence had a criminal history, a “proportion that has grown over time.” People with violent criminal histories weren’t more likely to mobilize to terrorism than others, and on average, there was a 4-year gap between their last reported criminal activity and their mobilization.

These findings are contrary to recent European research which has found that “criminal and extremist activities are described as increasingly related — or even completely symbiotic.”

The research comes from and corroborates previous studies that have found that many of those who are mobilized to violence “demonstrate signs of observable ‘leakage,’ and that there are usually others who know about their plans."

Some Canadian terrorism experts were pleased the report was made public by the notoriously secretive agency.

“This is the first unclassified public report on findings,” tweeted Carleton University professor and former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin, adding that a key task for countering violent extremism is making it possible for bystanders to come forward “without feeling they will be under suspicion.”

“I am so happy to see this published,” she tweeted.

“[Indicators of Mobilization to Violence] was designed to help provide guidance to front line workers as to what kind of patterns of behaviour *may* be a sign of concern,” she continued.

“Worry less about what people say and think, and more about what they do.”