Jun 21, 2017

'It is a battle for hearts and minds': Trudeau's $35 million gamble to counter radicalization

Families Against Terrorism and Extremism
Whether these and other counter-radicalization measures being tried in the West are having any impact is anyone’s guess; the evidence is still largely lacking

Douglas Quan
National Post
June 11, 2017

As a family gathers around the dinner table, one seat is conspicuously empty.

“He’ll be back soon,” the mother says in the video, referring to her son, a presumed foreign fighter. “You know how much he loves my cooking.”

Her husband reaches his hand over to hers. “Darling,” he intones, “it’s been over two years now.”

As the scene fades to black, a message flashes on the screen: “They’ll be missed more than they’ll ever know.”

Grassroots organizations in Europe, such as Families Against Terrorism and Extremism, have produced a number of high-impact videos in recent years aimed at curbing violent extremism among youth and undercutting terrorist propaganda.

But whether these and other counter-radicalization measures being tried in the West are having any impact on would-be terrorists is anyone’s guess; the evidence is still largely lacking, experts say.

That uncertainty now looms over the Canadian government as it prepares to unveil a new office aimed at thwarting radicalized violence, whether perpetuated by radical Islamists or far-right extremists. After a lengthy delay, the Liberals are expected to launch the new office — currently called the Office of the Community Engagement and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator — in the near future, pledging $35 million over five years to support intervention efforts, counter-narrative campaigns and research.

The roll out — at a time when Britain is recovering from a string of terror incidents — is fraught with challenges, observers say. How will the government ensure programming doesn’t make entire demographic groups feel like they’re being stigmatized? Is the government better off supporting programs aimed at a broad audience, including at-risk youth? Or programs that narrowly target those on the cusp of violence? When, if ever, is it appropriate to intervene if someone espouses radical beliefs but not radical behaviour?

The whole effort will be “costly, resource-intensive if done correctly, time-consuming, with political risks,” said Jez Littlewood, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

“Despite all these, my view is that the effort is worthwhile and should be tried.”

Last August, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters that the new office — a key promise in the 2015 election campaign — would be open by the fall. But the government has had trouble finding someone to lead the office. Goodale’s spokesman Scott Bardsley said the appointment of a special adviser should be complete “in the coming months.”

“We want Canada to be a world leader in countering radicalization,” Bardsley said.

That will require help from partners in the community to carry out programs and research. “It has to be local, it has to be grassroots,” said Lorne Dawson, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo and expert on radicalization.

Public Safety Canada says it intends to “empower community actors — particularly youth and women” to develop programs and messaging that “challenge violent radical narratives and promote critical thinking.”

Federal officials have been closely monitoring developments in Britain, where critics have accused the government’s counter-radicalization initiatives of trampling on rights and stigmatizing Muslims. One program, called Prevent, provides support to community groups and schools to develop projects that challenge extremist messages. A companion program, called Channel, identifies vulnerable youth and attempts to steer them to various community partners for mentoring or counselling.

But social justice groups have complained the programs define extremism too broadly — someone can be targeted for expressing opposition to “fundamental British values,” for instance, and there has been a tendency to “over-refer” individuals.

Success in one year may be undone two or three years later

There is also a risk of violating freedom of expression, critics say.

According to one report, staff at a nursery school had referred a four-year-old boy to the program after he had drawn a picture of a man holding a knife and allegedly talked about “cooker bombs.” His mother insisted that it was misunderstanding and that the boy was merely describing a picture of his father cutting a “cucumber.”

Amira Elghawaby, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said her organization has been getting regular updates on the counter-radicalization office and is so far encouraged that Ottawa seems to be taking an inclusive approach to the problem. “We’re all in this together.”

Under the Conservative government, public safety officials held a series of meet-and-greet events, many in Muslim communities, that allowed members of the public to get to know representatives from Canada’s national security agencies. The events later progressed in 2014 and 2015 into weightier discussions. Stories about radicalized individuals were shared, and attendees were encouraged to weigh in on what could’ve been done to intervene.

Mubin Shaikh, a former CSIS and RCMP undercover operative who helped to take down the Toronto 18 terrorist group, said the events were warmly received. “The kids loved it,” he said. “It did start a dialogue.”

But there were complaints, too, namely that the discussions failed to address broader societal issues contributing to radicalization, such as youth unemployment and marginalization, Dawson said.

A growing number of experts are advocating for a more holistic approach to countering violent extremism — one that attempts to address community grievances and feelings of social exclusion, he said.

Still, some say the terrorist propaganda and violent narratives on the Internet and social media sites — often infused with glorious references to past and valiant warriors — cannot be ignored and efforts must be made to squarely refute their often misleading claims.

“It is a battle for hearts and minds,” Shaikh said.

Some of this is already happening in Canada. In 2015, Public Safety Canada threw its support behind a video project, Extreme Dialogue, that highlighted the stories of individuals who had walked away from extreme Islamist groups or far-right groups, as well as family members impacted by extremism.

Last year, Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence created a comic book that used humour to try to address some of the underlying causes of radicalization.

But do these counter-narrative campaigns ring hollow for their intended audiences? And how do you gauge success? By clicks and web visits?

Phil Gurski, a former CSIS strategic analyst, said trying to deconstruct and counter every piece of propaganda ends up being a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.” He suggested putting more emphasis on alternative narratives, for example, emphasizing Muslim empowerment and success stories.

But that still leaves the question of how to deal with individuals who are more deeply entrenched in their radicalization, such as foreign fighters who have returned to Canada. About 180 Canadians are known to have participated in terrorist activities overseas — mostly in Turkey, Iraq and Syria — and about 60 have returned.

If police fear someone may commit a terrorism offence, but don’t have enough evidence to charge them, they have sometimes gone to court to apply for peace bonds, which temporarily restrict an individual’s movements. But as the case of Aaron Driver showed, these bonds cannot always be relied upon to prevent violence.

Driver had been the subject of a peace bond that restricted access to his computer and cellphone and barred him from possessing firearms or explosives. Yet, last August, the Islamic State sympathizer was able to shoot a martyrdom video and get into a taxi with a homemade bomb before being shot and killed by police in Strathroy, Ont.

For those not quite as far down the path of radicalization, police in Toronto last year announced they had been experimenting with an early intervention model, not dissimilar to the one in Britain. Individuals deemed at-risk for violence are steered to “hubs” of community representatives who assess whether they might benefit from spiritual guidance, family counselling or mental-health support. Calgary police have a similar program in place.

Yet this approach creates other conundrums: Should such voluntary programs be mandatory? And should the goal be “de-radicalization” — the suppression of extreme ideology? Or is it more realistic to settle for “disengagement” — allowing a person to continue to harbour radical ideas so long as they do not resort to or support violence?

“The dangers to democracy are obvious here and not at all easy to reconcile,” Littlewood said. And, “success in one year may be undone two or three years later,” he added.

Whoever takes the helm of Canada’s new counter-radicalization office is in for a “mind-boggling” ride to try to create a coherent national framework for best practices, Gurski said.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know what works,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”


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