Dec 17, 2016

Forget about "one-size-fits-all" counter-radicalization policies

No overarching process can account for every terrorist’s personal journey to violence, and our policies should reflect that.

Steven Zhou
December 16, 2016

The term “radicalization” is used so much these days that people have come to assume that it refers to a single, undifferentiated process that every terrorist goes through. The quest to define and detail the specific steps of this process has become the “Holy Grail” mission of radicalization studies in the post-9/11 era. Yet after a decade of searching, most experts have come to the conclusion that there’s no single “terrorist profile” to determine who might become dangerous and how.

Throughout the political spectrum, on both the right and the left, self-styled “experts” have tried to boil down the radicalization process into a single motive or factor: Islamic scripture, social alienation, sexual frustration, poverty, mental illness, anger over US foreign policy, etc. Emphasizing one over the other is often a reflection of political motives or academic myopia, and not reality.

Such reductive rationalizations, coupled with irresponsible theorizing, have affected the way Western governments pursue antiradicalization and counterterrorism policy. There is no overarching process that can account for every terrorist’s personal journey to violence. Different life circumstances can produce different motivations and pressures. Canada’s counterterrorism policies should reflect this reality.

Instead of creating one-size-fits-all policies or programs for every community regardless of specific local dynamics, any initiative that aims to prevent radicalization must establish trust with the people living in a particular locality. And given the often strained relationship between law enforcement and certain minority communities — many of which consist primarily of Muslims — the police should not be forced to take the lead on initiatives that aim to sniff out potential terrorists in some of these neighbourhoods.

Though law enforcement can facilitate systems through which dangerous individuals can be held accountable, the corresponding referral system can only achieve legitimacy if it’s civilian run. Similarly, antiradicalization programs should be branded as community efforts to engender civic and political participation and awareness. The very few who fall through the cracks should be referred to the law by their family members or peers.

Different circumstances produce different pressures

Personal surroundings, beliefs and many other factors intersect in different ways to produce different results, depending on the troubled individual’s immediate circumstances. A young man who loses his family to a drone strike and turns to violence doesn’t share the exact same radicalizing circumstances with someone who lives in, say, a London, ON, suburb and wants to join a foreign terrorist group.

Being able to help youth (or even adults) distance themselves from harmful ideological or sociopolitical influences means getting a close-up picture of their lives. It’s usually impossible to obtain such a glimpse without the trust of their parents or close friends.

In fact, this is a dynamic that Canada’s intelligence agencies are familiar with. In 2010-11, CSIS undertook a large study that looked into how radicalization works throughout the country. It found that immigrant communities usually have very little direct relationship to terrorism and that mosques, among other mainstream religious venues, are almost never incubators for terrorism or radicalization.

In Canada, those who become radicalized are almost never marginalized members of their communities and often have a high level of education. Yet Muslim Canadians have often complained about how their public spaces of worship have become places of suspicion. To quote a column by the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders, who wrote about the CSIS study, Canada is looking for terrorists in “all the wrong places.”

Instead of spouting their radical beliefs in mosques, where lots of different people gather to worship and where religious leaders keep an eye on the congregation, those who are vulnerable to radicalizing factors undergo a highly individualized process in their private spaces, often with the help of the Internet.

These conclusions are almost identical with a major MI5 study conducted in 2008, which looked at hundreds of case studies. The agency’s behavioural science unit notes that there is no “single pathway” to terrorism and that would-be radicals are usually religious novices who neglect going to places of worship or other mainstream faith-based venues.

Easier said than done

The Toronto Police Service revealed this week that it’s been operating a secret radicalization prevention program for more than two years. Police officers and “participating agencies” have been referring youth who they deem to be in danger of radicalization to one of four deradicalization “hubs” across the city. Several experts then work with the individual to take him or her off the path of extremism.

Any effort to prevent or curb extremism will invite communal suspicion if branded explicitly as such. To maximize legitimacy, future programs should be local efforts that privilege communal input. Groups that participate should identify themselves and work with parents, community leaders and other civilians to identify/refer troubled youth.

This latest effort in Toronto is just Canada’s latest attempt at getting counterterrorism right. The Trudeau government has set aside $35 million for counter-radicalization efforts and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale is sourcing public opinion on public safety strategies via his national consultations. All this will be in vain if the Canadian establishment doesn’t take the latest conclusions on radicalization seriously and try to implement policies that reflect these findings.

Getting the right balance of community-sourced human intelligence, signals intelligence (interception of electronic communications) and heavy-handed law enforcement isn’t easy. But Canada has no chance of putting together a useful program if the police and intelligence agencies are not totally upfront and transparent with the communities on which they focus.

A way forward

Instead of focusing on secretive programs that spy on entire congregations, or on efforts to assemble anonymous experts in unidentified “hubs,” the government should make an overtly public effort to fund community spaces that facilitate open political discussions and civic engagement, particularly in minority communities. Not only will this help curb extremism itself by providing local outlets, it will show that the Canadian establishment is interested in the political and social grievances of those who often feel left out of the national conversation.

The Toronto Police Service has noted that it has not gotten many cases for its program to work on, but that could be because the Muslim community, among others, don’t trust that the police are there to help. Youth who are referred for “treatment” by this program participate on a voluntary basis, but the Toronto police haven’t disclosed which civilian agencies are and have been participating in the program for the past two years. Nor have they revealed their list of “103 risk factors” that are supposed to assist the anonymous experts who work in each “hub” to identify radicalizing individuals and deradicalize them.

This opaqueness doesn’t help because it doesn’t foster trust. In order to implement policies that try to tackle this problem from the ground up, Canada’s national security apparatus should source information and input directly from community members through constant communication. Trusted community members (teachers, social workers, academics, etc.) who possess a respectable degree of political acumen can help formulate programs that develop political awareness and engagement among youth.

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