What Can Canada Do about Homegrown Radicals?

With the tragic Boston bombing still fresh on our minds—as the city recovers and a manhunt continues within the city—Noah Tavlin looks at recent incidents of violent radicalism in Canada and speaks to experts about particular that problem.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Al-Qaeda commander who led the attack on the Tigantourine gas plant. via.

After the revelation‪ that Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, two Canadians from London, Ontario, had participated and died in the attempted January 2013 al-Qaeda take-over of the Tigantourine gas facility near Aménas, Algeria, many Canadians could not comprehend why and how a Canadian would join al-Qaeda—or any other terrorist organization for that matter. As the city of Boston begins to recover from the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, and the resulting shootout and manhunt, the concern over radical attacks is reaching a fever pitch. The Boston bombing has Canada taking precautions too—a suspicious package left outside a metro station caused the police to shut down the station, while they inspected the potential threat with a robot that looks like WALL-E.

There have been a few instances of Canadian involvement in international terror incidents. There was the Canadian who bombed a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and Canadians have been linked with Al-Shabaab for a while now. However, among these sparse incidences, no concrete pattern has emerged. There isn't a key group or city or province. There is no al-Qaeda “x-treme marketing” ad campaign convincing kids that “terrorism is cool!”

Christian Leuprecht, specialist in national security at both Queen's University and the Royal Military College, explains to me that first of all, we can't assume—contrary to popular belief—that anyone is recruiting Canadians to take advantage of their passports.Canadian passports are not the sole reason terrorists would recruit a Canadian, although they certainly are a bonus.

Furthermore, Christian says, there is no evidence to suggest that terrorists target Canadians at all. Typically young Canadian men become involved with these groups by seeking them out themselves. Although every case is different, he explains that typically they read some books, make friends of a similar radical persuasion, and meet mentors who reinforce these ideas. Pretty soon they're in with the wrong crowd and eventually they might make decisions and commitments that they must uphold. This seems to fit the biography that the National Post has pieced together.

But why the fuck would a Canadian seek out back issues of al-Qaeda's official zine in the first place? Lorne Dawson, professor at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, has found that the radicalization of Canadians has nothing to do with poverty, psychological abnormality, broken homes in ghettoized communities or early exposure to crime and violence. “The individuals we're looking at are remarkably ordinary,” he says.

This explains why Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, who CBC says were both from “comfortable, middle-class backgrounds,” didn't join gangs; terrorists have a different motivation. Lorne's research suggests that the first key motivator for anyone to become a terrorist is an identity crisis.

According to Lorne, Xristos is a prime example of a young man having an identity crisis. He converted to Islam when he was in grade nine. He was most likely looking for answers and turned to religion, as so many do. Violent radicals also frequently (but not always) report feeling distant from their immigrant parents. Most interestingly, Lorne says they have a “unique desire to have a significant role to play in the world. They want to count. They want to be somebody. They want to matter.” In other words, they are motivated in the same way that most people are motivated. They want to make a difference on what they believe are morally justified grounds.

Now, most people do not believe that blowing up an oil refinery or bombing a village is very moral. However Lorne points out, it's not that different from enlisting in the military to fight in a war—you believe the means justify the ends.

The majority of people who turn to a terrorist organization during an identity crisis will never commit an act of terrorism. Lorne says that according to his research “about 90% will leave the group within two years.” They work out their issues and move on. Whether or not people fall into the other 10% depends on who they meet, where they travel and what ideologies are reinforced the most, to name a few factors.

Christian Leuprecht compares becoming a terrorist to alcoholism. “They always say 'it doesn't take much to be an alcoholic—the right friends, right drink, right bar.' In that sense, it doesn't take that much to become a violent radical; the right ideas, the right group of people, right network—and off you go.”

Those essential ideas, groups of people and networks could exist in Canada. However, there is very little evidence and very few convictions of activities such as fundraising and recruiting. Christian says “these groups do things that aren't explicitly illegal, which makes them difficult to convict.”

Since terrorists aren't going to rent out a storefront in a trendy neighborhood and open up shop, they have to get creative. Take for example the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which Canada has listed as a terrorist organization. This group was known for fundraising in Toronto by siphoning off profits from those sketchy calling cards you see posters for in convenience stores. This is technically legal, even if CSIS and the RCMP know exactly where that money is going.

Recruiting works the same technically-legal way. They communicate on message boards in the hardest to reach corners of the internet. Even if CSIS and the RCMP can find and track these sites, unless someone specifically says they are going to leave Canada to participate in a terrorist group, they have not done anything illegal.

All of this makes fighting a terrorist groups in Canada seem futile. There isn't a Canadian Osama Bin Laden we can put in jail to prevent Canadians from joining al-Qaeda. Canadians, and westerners in general, seek out terrorism themselves.

However, all hope is not lost. Far from it, in fact. While the problem is complex, Canada actually does fairly well at preventing international terror groups infiltrating. The incidences are far and few between. Part of this is because we're in Canada, a relatively small, inconsequential player. But Lorne points to Denmark, “they have only four million people, are not involved in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, yet they've had a higher instance of terrorist plots and radicalization.”

Lorne believes that Canada's official policy of multiculturalism makes a big difference. Social scientists can actually statistically measure inclusivity. According to Lorne, Canadian immigrants have a higher rate of inclusivity than immigrants in countries like Germany, France and Britain. They feel welcomed; they feel that they belong; they feel that they have a role to play in Canadian society. They are more likely to feel important and needed without joining terrorist groups.

Before we give ourselves too many pats on our backs, let's not forget that Canada probably should change something, since we're still producing terrorists here and there. Of course, everyone has their own opinion on what needs to change. All you have to do is pop into the comment sections for one of these homegrown radical stories, on any major Canadian media outlet, to figure that out.

Christian says the most important change Canadians can make is to have conversations about national security in the same way that we have conversations about education and health care. He also says we need to be having a similar national conversation about whether the legal limits on CSIS's operational boundaries “impose undo constraints on an organization that has been giving a counter-terrorist mandate.”

Lorne, on the other hand, believes that we need to continue promoting multiculturalism, inclusion and research. “These things are going to happen no matter what. You can't cut off the internet. You can't solve the identity issues. And you can't enforce a police state. It's detection, awareness and attitude. That's all you have to go on.”

Canada's methods can and should be improved. Preventing certain diasporas from immigrating here will not help, because the terrorists we’ve observed so far are Canadian citizens. Spying on mosques will not help either. The only step Canada can take with certainty in these uncertain times is continue having a dialogue, being a nice and welcoming people, and continuing to support research into these matters.

Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahtavlin

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