Sep 14, 2015

How to spot violent radicals

Saskatoon StarPhoenix
September 13, 2015

The attacks that killed two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu last October left many asking the same question: why?

Why had Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau become terrorists?

But a new book by the government's former senior adviser on violent extremism argues that asking why is a dead end. The reasons people have joined armed Islamist groups are so varied, there is just no pattern, Phil Gurski writes in The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West.

"The 'why' question is natural and I think it feeds an instinctive human need," Gurski said. "But we're never going to figure the why part out."

The better question to ask is how it happens, he says. Understanding that would mean it could be recognized and dealt with - whether through family and community intervention or, in more serious cases, intelligence and police work. That may be the best hope for stopping it before anyone else gets hurt.

"Violent radicalization may be complicated, but it is usually detectable - if you know what to look for," Gurski writes in the book slated for release next month, during the anniversary of the Ottawa and Quebec attacks.

The book is not a tell-all.

No secrets are revealed. Instead, Gurski draws on his more than three decades as a Canadian intelligence analyst to demystify the national security issue that is preoccupying governments everywhere.

He started work at the Communications Security Establishment in 1983, two months before the Soviet Union's nuclear early-warning alarm triggered, having falsely identified the launch of Minuteman intercontinental missiles from U.S. bases. The mistake almost started a nuclear war.

Back then, the Cold War was the overwhelming focus of the CSE, which hired him at age 22, partly because he was adept in six languages. But Gurski was one of a dozen analysts given the job of keeping track of everything else going on in the world.

Like terrorism.

After picking up Arabic and Farsi, he became a Middle East expert, but he said there was no real sense of urgency around terrorism, even after the name Osama bin Laden began to surface. "Terrorism was around back then but we didn't pay a lot of attention," he said.

Months after he moved to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, however, the 9/11 attacks vaulted terrorism to the top of the agenda. Could it happen here? he asked. He began studying radicalization and continued to do so until his retirement last month.

He examined case after case in which Canadians had bought into the manufactured al-Qaida narrative, which claims the West is at war against Islam and true Muslims are therefore obliged to wage war against the West until it is defeated.

From his insider's perch, he came to the opinion there was no template for what motivated people to become terrorists, but there were definitely "tangible, observable behaviours and attitudes" associated with radicalization.

Just as you could tell if someone was on drugs from the way they behaved, those undergoing radicalization likewise give off consistent signals. He lists a dozen of them in the book, starting with "a sudden increase in intolerant religiosity."

Those on the path to radicalization will also reject differing interpretations of Islam. They will isolate themselves from non-Muslims, sometimes refusing to have contact with them or deal with their businesses. They will condemn the Western way of life, particularly democracy, homosexuality and gender equality. They will denounce Western policies, portraying them as part of "an anti-Islamic crusade," he says.

Canada's contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan is one example. (As Gurski notes, however, extremists have created a damned-if-you-do, damnedif-you-don't scenario: any Western military intervention is automatically spun as part of the war on Islam, but so is the decision not to intervene in a conflict.)'

"Differences and disagreements about Canadian government policies are not uncommon in this country," he writes. "The threat lies not in the differences of opinion but in the belief that Canada has an overt animosity toward Islam and therefore must be punished through acts of terrorism."

A desire to travel to conflict zones is also an indicator, as well as obsessions with jihadist websites, the al-Qaida narrative, martyrdom and the end-of-times. Even if those who show these signs prove to be non-violent, Gurski argues the matter should be taken seriously and their views should be challenged.

In the interview, Gurski said it was important to have a clear and accurate understanding of how radicalization happens. He recalled meeting the mother of a Canadian extremist killed in Syria and asking her to walk him through what she had observed in his behaviour.

She described how her son converted, cut himself off from his former friends, became intolerant of other faiths, denounced the Western lifestyle and despised Western foreign policy. The signs were all there, she just didn't know them. "That's what I'm trying to do with the book," he said.

He believes family, friends and religious leaders will often be the first to notice such behaviour, long before security and law enforcement hear about it.

"It is my hope that by learning what the indicators can mean, people best positioned to detect them in their early stages will be empowered to not ignore them but act," he said.

Canada seems ready for it, he added.

In 2006, when the Toronto 18 terrorist group was caught plotting bomb attacks in downtown Toronto, the arrests were met with denial. Almost a decade later, after many more arrests and two successful attacks, he believes there is more understanding of the problem. During the last two years of Gurski's career, he spoke to many community groups.

"In most cases what really impressed me was how engaged people were," he said. "They know it's happening in their midst, they're a little bit confused about it."

He said while people generally want to help, they're not always sure what to do and may have misconceptions about extremism. The "solutions" they propose often include jobs, education, integration, mental health funding, addressing underlying grievances and developing "a true understanding of Islam."

But he calls those unhelpful against radicalization. He supports early intervention programs run by people with the proper training. But he cautions there are times police will have to investigate and make arrests. He also wants Canadians to know that those threatening to attack Canada in ISIL videos are not necessarily the monsters we make them out to be. In fact, they tend to be fairly ordinary.

"They are us," he writes.

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