Is Radicalization Forever?
What Are We Doing About It?
Terrorism Here vs. Terrorism There: Do We Have to Choose?
Radicalization is a critical subset of the terrorist threat.
The RCMP defines radicalization as the process by which individuals — usually young people — are
introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views. While radical thinking is by no means problematic in itself, it becomes a threat to national security when Canadian citizens or residents espouse or engage in violence or direct action as a means of promoting political, ideological or religious extremism.
Sometimes referred to as “homegrown terrorism,” this process of radicalization is more correctly
referred to as domestic radicalization leading to terrorist violence.
The nuances of this definition are critical. The English word “radical” comes from
the Latin radis, or “root.” Its connotation (as in the word “radish”) is of being buried
in the ground, rooted, fundamental. So a radical is a person who wishes to effect
fundamental political, economic or social change, or change from the ground up.
Is Radicalization Bad?
As stated in the RCMP definition, radical thinking is not necessarily problematic.
Most progress has been an outcome of some form of radicalization and the mindset
that accompanies it. Martin Luther King was considered a radical, as were a host of
other people that we now view as important and entirely legitimate historical figures,
from Moses, Mohammed and Jesus to Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem.
In some cases, even violent radicals have later been deemed to be acting in the name
of causes that were just. John Brown, the 19th century American abolitionist is an
example of such an individual.
All of us have views and opinions that others would define as radical, if not extreme.
Radical thought and action does not necessarily translate into terrorism. In fact,
radicals can play a highly positive role, both in their communities and in the larger
political context (although admittedly this role is often only acknowledged after the
fact). Again, radical views only become a problem when they are used to promote or
condone violence or other forms of extremist behavior, including terrorism.
What is Radicalization?
In a contemporary context, radicalization is most often discussed with reference to
young Muslims who are influenced, to one degree or another, by Islamist thought.
Islamism (the practical application of Islamist thought), a term that is NOT a
synonym for Islam, is a set of ideologies that holds that Islam is not simply a religion,
but also a political system. This system is exemplified by the various Caliphates —
political dynasties that combined political with religious hegemony — that ruled
the medieval Islamic world. The basic tenets of Islamist thought hold that modern
Islam must return to its historic and theological roots, that this “proto-Islam” must
become a political unifying factor for Muslims the world over, and that a truly
Islamic society must be governed by law derived from traditional Islamic sources.
There are many different proponents of Islamism, and many different schools of
Islamist thought. Many of these, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are not terrorists,
nor do they necessarily advocate violence (although Hamas, among others, has
its ideological roots in the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and some senior
al Qaeda associates are linked to it). By far the best known and most problematic
Islamist group, however, is al Qaeda and all of the groups and individuals that are
associated with it. Moreover, most recent radicalization leading to terrorism in
Canada, in the United States, in Europe and elsewhere has been driven by al Qaeda,
its ideology, or by groups or individuals who are either associated with or influenced
by al Qaeda.
Public awareness of radicalization in Canada has largely been determined by the
events and personalities associated with the “Toronto 18” and Momin Khawaja cases.
In this country, radicalization that is rooted in Islamist ideology is a relatively recent
phenomenon, however. Radicalization has always been a part of socio-political reality,
even in Canada. It has spanned not only the entire “left-right” political spectrum,
from environmental and animal rights activists to neo-Nazis, but a range of ethnic
and religious interests as well. From a Canadian perspective, the actions of the FLQ
and the “Squamish Five,” and the Air India bombing embody the kind of extremist
“direct action” that can lie at the end of the radicalization process.
Radicalization can occur due to a multitude of factors and influences. There is no
single group that seeks out vulnerable and impressionable young people. Nor is
radicalization limited to any single ethnic or interest group. Historically, violent
factions of various political ideologies have employed similar recruiting strategies
and targeted similar demographics.
The life stories and experiences of a range of historical characters from many different
cultures can be understood as manifestations of not only radicalization, but also the
violence that can lie at the end of the radicalization continuum. These include Vladimir
Lenin, whose single-minded pursuit of revolution was driven, in large measure, by
the execution of his beloved older brother, a revolutionary, by Tsarist authorities;
Ernesto “Che” Guevara whose radical, and ultimately violent extremist worldview
originated in his experiences as a young doctor working in South American leper
Radicalization: A Muslim Thing?
colonies; and even Jesse James, whose rampage of banditry
and terrorism across the American Midwest was a largely a
continuation of the Civil War by other means.
Nevertheless, domestic radicalization associated with
violent Islamist extremist ideology is a particular concern
for law enforcement and security agencies. Virtually all of
the planned or actual terrorist attacks in Western Europe
and North America since 9/11 have been carried out by
young Muslims. Whatever their national and cultural
origins, most were either native-born citizens or long-term
residents of the countries they were attacking and most had
undergone an identifiable process of radicalization. These
attacks include the Theo Van Gogh killing and the “Hofstad
Plot” in the Netherlands; the Madrid bombings; the 7/7
bombings and their aftermath, Operation OVERT (the socalled
“Heathrow Plot”), the 2007 firebombing of Glasgow
Airport and failed terrorist attacks in Central London; and,
of course, the “Toronto 18” and Khawaja cases in Canada.
The extent of radicalization in contemporary Canada is difficult to determine,
particularly with regard to radicalization associated with Islamist terrorism.
Relatively few academic studies address the problem, although research currently
being conducted in Canada by the UK-based DEMOS think tank may help to scope
the problem. Law enforcement and security agencies — the most ready source of
statistical data — only investigate individuals who are already radicalized to the
extent that they are committing or are about to commit criminal offences. Therefore,
law enforcement and security datasets may be inherently biased and not reflective of
society at large.
Other data sources — both quantitative and qualitative — do shed limited light
on the issue however. For example, in a 2006 ENVIRONICS poll of Muslim
Canadians, 12% of respondents either somewhat or fully supported the goals of the
alleged “Toronto 18” terrorist cell. While this does not necessarily signify that 12%
(or 100,000) of the overall Canadian Muslim community has either been radicalized
or is sympathetic with radical ideology, it is consistent with similar polls carried out
in other Western nations. At the same time, it is important to remember that this
poll was carried out in haste, without a meaningful control sample, and in a highly
charged political and emotional environment.
CSIS, meanwhile, has stated publicly that it is monitoring “several hundred” national
security-related subjects of interest (among whom are radicalized individuals). The
UK Security Service (MI5) has noted publicly that it has identified about 2,000 such
From all of this, it is possible to hypothesize that the radicalization problem is bigger
than current investigations show. So too, both the “Toronto 18” and Khawaja cases
also serve as indicators that radicalization is very much a Canadian reality and that
it has the potential to culminate in violence. The development of meaningful public
policy aimed at addressing radicalization will require not only proper metrics, but
also understanding and knowledge of at-risk communities and the pressures and
dynamics at work within them.
Radicalization in Canada
Academics and security experts have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to
identify a radical typology and to determine what drives people — especially young
people — down the road of radicalization towards terrorism.
Poverty and alienation are popular explanations, but they do not stand up to scrutiny.
Domestically-radicalized terrorists do not necessarily exist at the margins of society.
For example, all of the eight suspects in the botched June 2007 terrorist attacks in
London and at Glasgow’s international airport were professionals: physicians, medical
research scientists and an engineer. All were residents of the United Kingdom.
Moreover, the recent past has shown that many dangerous extremists spring from
the ranks of the privileged middle and upper-middle classes. The Hamburg Cell that
formed the hard core of the 9/11 conspiracy were all enrolled at German universities;
Osama bin Laden has an engineering background; his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri,
is a paediatrician.
This is a historical trend as well: Ulrike Meinhoff, founder and chief ideologue of
the German Red Army Faction was a highly educated journalist; George Habash,
founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (and a Christian, not a
Muslim) was a physician, as was Che Guevara. Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and
the rest of the Bolshevik inner circle (with the exception of Josef Stalin) were all welleducated
and well-traveled and were extremely sophisticated thinkers.
In the police and security community, we have a tendency to assume that deprivation
and alienation are effective predictors of the kind of radicalization that can lead to
extremist action. Consequently, we tend to focus attention and resources on the
young and on the “underclass.” Mature and well-educated individuals are likely
to be receptive to much more sophisticated radical messaging than their younger
counterparts, however.. More importantly, they have both the intellectual and
emotional wherewithal to translate this into meaningful direct action and to take on
leadership roles within terrorist cells.
Another popular explanation for the kind of radicalization that leads to terrorism
is rooted in the failure of concepts like multiculturalism and integration. This
explanation assumes that a group at particularly high risk of crossing the line into
terrorist activities is the children of immigrants who find themselves both trapped
and marginalized by the conflict between the traditional world of their parents and
the often confusing and contradictory cultural messages of modern western society.
While there is some merit to this argument, it also describes a classic immigrant
dilemma which rarely translates into terrorist activity. The assumption that
domestically radicalized terrorists are somehow “different” is belied by the “Toronto
18” trial. The media repeatedly draw attention to the “ordinariness” of the defendants.
This is borne out by the wiretap recordings being played in court, in which defendants
communicate in a sort of “hoser-gangsta” patois, talk about how much they love Tim
Horton’s doughnuts, and exclaim over the wintertime beauty of rural Ontario.
Radicals into Terrorists: Who?
There is a parallel here with the European experience, in which native-born individuals who become radicalized to the point of undertaking terrorist activity are often not superficially different from their peers. For example, in their “martyrdom statements” the North of England accents of the 7/7 bombers make them sound like the Beatles. Moreover, all of the 7/7 bombers had reasonably good educations and meaningful jobs and all regularly crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries in their daily lives. The Glasgow Airport bombers were successful professionals, apparently well-placed in British society. As above, if there
is a common factor at play, it is the number of radicals
and extremists who emerge from socio-economic classes
that, superficially, are most invested in the status quo. If
the American Revolution was led by some of the most
prominent citizens of the Thirteen Colonies, it should not be
surprising that young people who have benefited most from
what Canada has to offer might take up radical causes.
“Ordinariness” is a key factor in the domestic radicalization
phenomenon. It is what permits apparently integrated,
apparently nondescript individuals to become radicalized
to the point that they cross the terrorist line, and then
to plan and carry out terrorist acts, unnoticed until it is
too late. There is no reason that Canadian born terrorists
would not like Tim Horton’s doughnuts. It would be more
surprising if they did not. This duality represents a serious
challenge for law enforcement and security agencies that
must address and — particularly — anticipate the problem
The other part of this problem is that the very ordinariness of
Canadian-born terrorist suspects actually works against the
law enforcement and security community when it sets out
to educate the public about the problem of radicalization.
The fact that young people like the “Toronto 18” defendants
are so utterly rooted in Canadian youth culture and the
minutiae of daily life in Canada seems to imply that they
could not possibly be either aspiring or active terrorists.
Taken to its logical extent, this perception can imply that
the case itself is not a viable criminal prosecution but rather
the organized persecution of a group of hapless teenaged
Radicals into Terrorists: Why?
While concepts like “alienation” are not completely irrelevant to the problem, they
are not always useful in trying to anticipate or address the problem of radicalization.
Ultimately, largely immeasurable social, political and religious motivations may
trump mere citizenship. Radicalization remains a phenomenon that is difficult to
predict, with little associated typology. Pre-radicalization indicators — if they exist,
or are detectable — are often extraordinarily subtle, particularly to a cultural outsider
like a police or intelligence officer.
Nevertheless, a look back at some domestic and global examples does identify what
seem to be a few common factors, at least in the transformation of young Canadian
Muslims into extremists. Family ties, for example, can be critical. Ahmed Said Khadr,
father of Omar, inculcated all of his children with Islamist ideology and ensured that
they received training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. He also encouraged at
least one of them to become a suicide bomber.
The role of family ties can be extended to include a whole range of social networks.
Four of the eight accused in Operation Overt lived in the same East London
neighbourhood, and the “Toronto 18” conspirators were connected through school
and a number of neighbourhood networks. Similarities in background, age and
outlook in social and peer group networks of this type often create a synergy that
can accelerate the radicalization process, encouraging people to adopt attitudes or to
take action as a group that they might not consider as individuals.
Spiritual leaders and mentors with extremist views can also wield a great deal of
influence, particularly over young people. Aly Hindy, imam of the Salaheddin
Islamic Centre in Toronto, has served as a focal point for Toronto area Islamic
radicals, notably the Khadr family and members of the “Toronto 18” conspiracy.
Similarly, some converts may find their way to a radical interpretation of Islam due
to the influence of an extremist leader or mentor. At least one convert was involved
in the “Toronto 18” case. Germaine Lindsay, a Jamaican born convert to Islam was
one of the conspirators in the 7/7 bombings in London and Jason (Jamal) Walters, a
Dutch-American convert, was a member of the Hofstad Group in the Netherlands.
Travel to “hot zones” is another important factor. A number of Canadian-born
extremists have travelled and studied for extensive periods in Saudi Arabia where
they have been exposed to Islamist ideology in mosques and theological institutions.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are also critical, particularly when sojourns in terrorist
training camps or participation in actual combat operations are involved. John
Walker Lindh, better known as “the American Taliban” was a convert who had
studied in radical madrassas (Islamic seminaries) in Yemen and in Pakistan before
joining Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Similarly, Momin Khawaja spent time in
Pakistan while the Khadr brothers cycled through both training camps and Taliban
Geopolitical factors — particularly the perceived suffering of the Ummah (global community of Muslims) at the hands of the West — are also critical drivers pushing individuals into extremist thought, if not action. The message that the world is fundamentally “at war” with Islam is key to the Islamist “single narrative” — or “one size fits all explanation” — that drives terrorism the world over. This narrative is reinforced by current events — such as theIsrael / Palestine issue and the conflict in Afghanistan —which characterize the embattled Muslim communities as small but stalwart Davids beset by a lumbering and brutal Goliath. The romance of this unequal struggle may be especially appealing to young Muslims, who feel both
justified and compelled to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters against the powerful forces arrayed against them.
Many ethnic, cultural and religious constituencies in Canada remain deeply concerned about “homeland” issues. Indeed, continued identification with communities and countries of origin remains a component of the Canadian approach to multiculturalism. The Islamist “single narrative” — propagated by Islamist ideologues of every stripe, from Osama Bin Laden to street corner preachers —is fundamentally different however. Not only does it lie at the heart of the Islamist extremist worldview, it also identifies Canada as part of the problem. Key threads in the narrative include Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, its close alliance with both the United States and the United Kingdom and its support of the State of Israel. And Osama
Bin Laden and other Islamist ideologues have repeatedly identified Canada as one of the “Crusader nations” that is bent on attacking and destroying Islam.
When combined with purely personal or localized grievances, the “single narrative” provides individuals not
only with a means of explaining the world but — just as importantly — with a sense of personal meaning and a
cause for which to fight. This combination of worldview and self-justification appears to have driven the “Toronto 18” conspirators. It also was also the determining influence over Momin Khawaja who, after a wholly uneventful childhood and adolescence in suburban Ottawa, became convinced in his early 20s that the United States and its allies were responsible for the devastation of the Muslim world.
There is a tendency in the media to portray conversion to Islam as a sort of “fast
track” to terrorist action. However, Islam is one of the fastest growing faiths in the
world. An estimated 25 per cent of American Muslims are converts and anywhere
from 10,000 to 20,000 people convert to Islam each year in the United Kingdom.
Most converts to Islam are simply that — average people who have found that Islam
speaks to them as a faith.
Nevertheless, converts are a constant in Islamist terrorist plots. About half of the
subjects involved in disrupted plots in the United States are converts. Internationally,
a number of Islamic leaders have expressed concerns around the susceptibility of the
convert community to radicalization, noting that the experience of conversion can
create an emotional state that is easy for radicalization agents to manipulate. The life
stories of individuals like Germaine Lindsay, Jamal Walters and John Walker Lindh
(above) seem to bear this out. Conversion is not necessarily a precursor to extremism,
but it cannot be ruled out as a contributing factor in the development of extremist
thinking. Similarly, mosques are often portrayed as hotbeds of ideological proselytizing. This is
true in some cases: the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Toronto and London’s Finsbury Park Mosque (once colourfully referred to as “the suicide factory”) are obvious examples. Most mosques are like churches and synagogues however, and run by the congregation and their representatives. Imams are dependent upon the goodwill of those congregations for their living. Therefore, even in theologically conservative
mosques, extremists and those who otherwise diverge from a fairly narrow definition
of what is acceptable tend to get weeded out or ignored.
The real problem may in fact be what is NOT going on or being discussed in the
Mosques, particularly with regard to some of the existential and geopolitical issues
related to Islam in the larger world. Without clearly delineated guidance around
theologically or ideologically acceptable responses to these issues, curious or
concerned young people frustrated by lack of answers in legitimate cultural and
faith institutions may go looking for those answers elsewhere. It is at this point that
they are at risk of being drawn into a “secret world” that is extraordinarily difficult
for police and security officials to penetrate. It is in that secret world — increasingly
facilitated by the Internet — that they meet the charismatics, the ideologues and the
extremists, and where the single narrative becomes all-consuming.
1. The Internet
The American writer Gertrude Stein once observed of her hometown, Oakland,
California, that “there is no there, there.” This effectively describes not only the
Internet, but many terrorist organizations as well. As “networks of networks” with
no clearly identifiable center, terrorist groups and the Internet serve as metaphors for
The Internet remains an important terrorist tool, not just for al Qaeda, but for a
whole range of extremist organizations which, again, are less often groups than loose
associations of networks, in many cases spread across the globe. Without “physical”
command and control capacity, terrorist groups must rely on the Internet to raise
funds; to plot strategy and tactics; and, perhaps most importantly, to recruit,
propagandize and mobilize adherents.
Few individuals have been known to complete the radicalization process via the
Internet. Nevertheless, the Internet serves as a highly effective threshold for
radicalization, particularly for building the kinds of personal contacts and networks
that facilitate the radicalization process. Indeed, the very nature of the Internet
makes it an ideal venue for recruitment. It is easily accessible and difficult to monitor
and control. It permits speedy and anonymous communications with large numbers
of people. And the Internet possesses an immediacy that allows disparate people in
different parts of world to come together in an intimate space and to engage in a free
(and initially anonymous) exchange of views and ideas.
Immediacy and intimacy is coupled with the ability of specific websites to combine
words, images, video footage, sounds and music in a carefully controlled environment.
The combination is highly manipulative and, ultimately, far more effective than a
single proselytizer, in the same way that an audience will respond more readily to a
clever or imaginative commercial than it will to even the best salesman.
Al Qaeda is by no means the only terrorist group using the Internet. Virtually every
known terrorist organization has some sort of Web presence. This includes not only
well-known Middle East-based groups like Hamas and Hizbollah, but also European
entities like ETA and the Irish Republican Army; Sendero Luminoso and the Tupac
Amaru Revolutionary Movement in Latin America; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam and the Lashkar-e-Taiba in South Asia; and Aum Shinrikio and the Moro
Islamic Liberation Front in East and Southeast Asia.
Young people are the most receptive audience for extremist messaging over the web.
Not only has their intellectual framework largely been shaped by their interaction
with the Internet, but they are often struggling with fundamental questions around
faith, the future and their place in the world. What extremists are often able to
do, is to link such experiences to a culture of embattlement and victimhood; the
identification of “enemies”; and the suffering and humiliation of specific ethnic or
New Challenges religious groups — be they Muslim, Basque, Tamil or Irish Catholic — at the hands of those enemies. This culture of embattlement and victimhood is what lies at the heart of
the “single narrative” discussed above.
Many specifically Islamist websites capture their audience by initially addressing core existential issues: “What does it mean to be a Muslim in today’s world?”; “What is my place in the ummah — the larger global community of Muslims?” Once the audience has been “hooked” by these broader questions around Islamic identity and the meaning of a life in Islam, a more overt process of indoctrination
In the Islamist Internet world, such indoctrination is generally built around the “single narrative” that emphasizes specifically “Islamic” problems. These problems are rooted in perceived threats posed by common enemies, such as Israel or “Crusader nations” (the United States and its allies)and the suffering and humiliation of Muslims at the hands of these enemies. When this narrative with its themes of
embattlement, persecution and martyrdom is conveyed in combination with images and references that are rooted in youth culture, it has tremendous resonance among young people, particularly young people who are searching for a cause to define their place in the world.
Historically, a great deal of ambiguity has surrounded the role of women in the overall Islamist extremist narrative. Portrayal of women as fighters in extremist propaganda is often intended less to encourage women than it is to shame Muslim men who remain on the sidelines of the struggle.
Nevertheless, Islamist extremist groups seem increasingly willing to embrace and include women. Hamas, Hizballah and a number of other organizations increasingly portray women as both fierce and articulate, belying Western stereotypes of Muslim women. Al Qaeda publishes an online women’s magazine intended to recruit female fighters and martyrs. Other materials targeting women, especially on the Internet, emphasize their role in terrorist operations and provide specific instruction in a range of practical subjects
from small arms and explosives to battlefield medicine.
Increasing numbers of suicide attacks — whether in Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan and Kashmir — involve women,
and women have been actively involved in Chechen terrorist operations like the Moscow Theatre siege and the
Beslan school massacre. This suggests that the traditionalconstraints on women taking part in direct terrorist action are beginning to erode, perhaps indicating a willingness on the part of al Qaeda and its affiliates to take terrorist operations to a new level, utilizing a much broader constituency than in the past. Islamist terrorist activity has primarily been a male preserve, at least at the “sharp end.”
For this reason, women — and particularly women who are not overtly “Muslim” in appearance — could be significant “stealth” assets in terrorist operations. For example, Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert, travelled to Iraq in 2005 and died in a suicide attack on a US military patrol.
Women are also lending their voices to the Islamist ideological message, often employing a strange inversion
of the language of struggle and emancipation. In 2005, Shabina Begum, a British teenager who won a court
decision allowing her to wear jilbab (full length outer garment) over her school uniform observed that “Muslim women, from Uzbekistan to Turkey, are feeling the brunt of policies guided by Western governments … young Muslims, like me, have turned back to their faith after years of being taught that we needed to be liberated from it.”
Other vulnerabilities and vectors for radicalization include the global development of linkages between the politicalleft wing (“reds”) and Islamist extremists (“greens”).The unifying factor is, to a large extent, opposition to globalization, capitalism and US foreign and security policy,coupled with anti-Israel sentiment and admiration for the purported social activist component of terrorist groups like
Hamas and Hizballah. This seemingly counterintuitive discovery of common cause is allowing Islamist groups to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of liberation for oppressed peoples and, more importantly, to participate actively in the broader spectrum of western politics.
While primarily a European issue, manifestations of this “red-green coalition” have surfaced in Canada, most
notably at the level of student politics. Concordia University has been repeatedly forced to cancel debate on the Israel- Palestine issue after demonstrations and threats of violence by Muslim and left wing student groups who do not want their views challenged. While this is relatively removed from the mainstream, it is still a fundamental abrogation of constitutional guarantees regarding free speech and
Extremes of radical thought and action are not necessarily an end state. There
are numerous examples of radicals, extremist thinkers and terrorists who have
constructively re-integrated themselves into legitimate politics and society.
Between the 1970s and the late 1980s, the 19th of April Movement, or M-19, was the
largest guerrilla group in Colombia after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
or FARC. M-19 carried out a series of spectacular terrorist attacks, including a mass
hostage-taking of foreign diplomats in 1980 and an armed assault on the Colombian
justice ministry in 1985. In the course of a series of negotiations with the Colombian
government, the M-19 leadership and most of its fighters repudiated violence and
expressed their desire to change society through participation in legitimate politics.
This was more than simple pragmatism. Under the rubric of the M-19 Democratic
Alliance, the group became a powerful force in Colombian politics, helped to forge a
meaningful Colombian constitution, and assumed the presidency of the Colombian
Constituent Assembly. The M-19 Democratic Alliance continues to be influential
in various Colombian political coalitions and is a meaningful component of the
Colombian political process.
Closer to home, US president Barack Obama’s entry into electoral politics was an
unsuccessful 2000 run for Congress against Bobby Rush, a Chicago political fixture,
a Democratic party stalwart, and a highly respected eight-term Congressman. Rush’s
career trajectory is fascinating. After serving in the Army, he attended college where
he joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights
organization. From the SNCC, he moved to the Black Panther Party and was a
founder of its Illinois branch. He ran Black Panther meal programs and free medical
clinics in Chicago and was instrumental in forcing the larger medical and research
communities to acknowledge the impact of sickle cell anemia on American black
The stories of M-19 and Bobby Rush, while fundamentally different on a number of
levels, demonstrate that our understanding of “radicalization” needs to be far more
nuanced than it currently is. Again, radical thought does not necessarily translate
into terrorism. Radicals can play a highly positive role, both in their communities
and in the larger political context. Most importantly, radicalism exists on a sort
of sliding continuum and some radicals, even some extremists, may be persuaded
to channel their energy and their passion into legitimate politics. The trick, from a
security perspective, lies in understanding the different manifestations of the issue
and knowing which ones represent a threat and which an opportunity.
A number of countries — including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Singapore,
Indonesia and Malaysia — are using “de-radicalization” programs as a means of
demobilizing violent extremists and their supporters. Most of these de-radicalization
programs have been influenced, in part, by the large body of work on de-radicalization
and re-integration of former terrorists that has been carried out in Saudi Arabia.
Is Radicalization Forever?
RCMP NSCI — “Radicalization — A Guide for t 14 he Perplexed — June 2009”
Unclassified The Saudi de-radicalization program is rooted in the
recognition that violent Islamist extremism cannot be
defeated by traditional security means alone. Equally
essential is discrediting its intellectual roots and defeating
the ideological mindset that supports and nurtures political
violence. Convicted extremists (a number of whom are
Guantanamo returnees) that Saudi authorities judge to
be redeemable are subjected to intensive counseling by
religious scholars who focus on imparting an understanding
of Islamic doctrine around political change and the various
nuances of jihad, or struggle. This is coupled with intensive
societal re-integration programs, family support and
continuing monitoring and post-release aftercare. To date,
around 3,000 prisoners have participated in Saudi Arabia’s
de-radicalization program. Saudi authorities claim a
rehabilitation success rate of 80 to 90 per cent, and have rearrested
only 35 individuals for security-related offenses.
The societies and cultures in which such programs have
enjoyed (alleged) success are very different from Canada.
All practice capital punishment and virtually all of them
have been identified as states that routinely use torture
as an investigative / interrogation tool. The Saudi deradicalization
program does not resort to torture and is
intended partly to counteract the repressive image of the
Saudi security services. Nevertheless, implied physical
threats may in fact be as influential as de-radicalization
programming in persuading extremists to recant.
Saudi authorities are extremely open in admitting that
the first priority of their de-radicalization program is the
internal security of the Kingdom. They also recognize,
however, that if “rehabilitated” terrorists leave the Kingdom
and engage in terrorist activities elsewhere, then there will
be real consequences for the Kingdom in terms of bleedback
and internal and regional stability. It is at precisely this
point that Western and Saudi interests converge. This
convergence was thrown into sharp relief by the case of Said
Ali al-Shihri, an alumnus of both Guantanamo Bay and
the Saudi de-radicalization program, who has emerged as
the deputy leader of al Qaeda in Yemen and is implicated in
the September 2008 bombing of the US Embassy in Sana.
The nominal success of the Saudi program, and the
tremendous number of resources that the Saudi government
continues to pour into it, at least suggests that counterradicalization
programming (if not “de-radicalization”)
in the Islamist terrorist context is more than simply a
pipe dream. It is also clear from the Saudi experience
that successful de-radicalization programming must be
based upon meaningful understanding of the ideological
and theological foundations of extremist thought. Just as
importantly, it must be delivered in a way that is entirely
culturally appropriate. From a Western perspective, this
means that any form of de-radicalization must be delivered,
not by the police, the security services, or any other “official”
agency, but rather by affected communities themselves.
What Are We Doing About It?
Radicalization is a tremendously complex issue, with an array of political and
social implications, not only globally, but for Canada as well. There are a number
of mitigating factors at play, however that combine to make the nature of the
radicalization threat different than it is in, say, Europe or the United Kingdom.
Canada is a pluralist society whose approach to immigration is rooted in
multiculturalism. Historically, minorities and new arrivals in Canada are able to
integrate readily without giving up core religious or cultural practices and beliefs.
Equality of economic opportunity is both a principle and a reality of Canadian life.
And Canadian immigration policy has helped to build minority communities that
are well-educated and highly functioning by most social and economic measures.
This means that the task facing Canadian law enforcement, in parallel with other
government initiatives, is not to counter radical messaging that is entrenched in
specific communities. Instead, it is to help to build communities that are resilient
to radicalization that could lead to terrorist violence through effective support and
Over the past few months, NSCI has worked closely with a working group consisting
of a number of other Canadian police agencies, CSIS, DFAIT and Public Safety in
preparing a radicalization prevention strategy for the entire Canadian law enforcement
community, under the auspices of CACP Counterterrorism and National Security
(CTNS) Committee. An initial position paper / business case was accepted by the
CTNS Committee in August 2008. Over the fall and winter the working group
will proceed by identifying a whole range of best practices related to radicalization
and radicalization prevention, both within the RCMP and other agencies, and then
standardizing them across the community.
The working group has spent a great deal of time looking at counter-radicalization
models in other countries and its members feel confident that Canada is ahead of the
radicalization wave, that we can learn from the cases that have already occurred and
build that learning into an effective prevention strategy. As above however, proper
metrics and meaningful insights into at-risk communities are essential first steps.
Two of the leading US theorists on terrorism — Bruce Hoffman and Marc
Sageman — recently engaged in a highly public debate over the nature of the threat
from al Qaeda. In his latest book, Leaderless Jihad, Sageman contends that al Qaeda
is largely a spent force. He says that the real terrorist threat lies with radicalized
individuals and small groups who meet and plot in their own neighborhoods or
on the Internet. Hoffman, a respected Georgetown University historian, rebutted
Sageman in a review article in Foreign Affairs, citing a recent US National Intelligence
Estimate warning that “al Qaeda Central” is reconstituting itself in Pakistan.
Sageman’s argument is rooted in the concept of domestic radicalization. If he is correct
and the real terrorist threat is a domestic one, then the appropriate response lies with
good intelligence and law enforcement and effective prosecutions. If Hoffman is
right, and a monolithic al Qaeda remains a global threat, then the obvious response
is rooted in military and foreign intelligence operations, and in foreign policy.
The problem is that both Sageman and Hoffman are right (or wrong, depending
upon one’s perception). There are many credible indicators that al Qaeda has indeed
successfully reconstituted itself in the security of the Tribal Areas of Western
Pakistan and that it is playing a role in, among other things, the Taliban insurgency
in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-related and inspired entities are active in Iraq and North
and East Africa and the organization itself serves as a beacon to violent extremists all
over the globe. So whatever the actual role of al Qaeda Central, the very fact of its
continued existence represents a multi-layered threat.
Meanwhile, it is clear that domestic radicalization leading to terrorism continues to be
a serious threat, and one that is quite possibly accelerating. The two threats actually
complement each other — al Qaeda messaging plays a key role in radicalization,
while domestically radicalized individuals (like the 7/7 bombers) often cycle through
al Qaeda-run training camps. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to know where one
threat ends and the other begins.
While an “either / or” scenario is tempting, choosing one alternative over the other
will almost certainly lead back to the misperceptions of the 1990s — mistakes which
resulted not only in 9/11, but also in the Madrid bombings, the Theo Van Gogh
killing and the 7/7 bombings, among other things. A blended approach (which
supports and includes important initiatives like the CACP / RCMP-led counterradicalization
study) is undoubtedly still the best one.
Terrorism Here vs. Terrorism There: Do We Have to Choose?
Sources and Selected Readings
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. Modern Library, 2002.
Buruma, Ian. Murder in Amsterdam. Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance. Penguin, 2006.
Boucek, Christopher. Saudi Arabia’s “Soft” Counterterrorism Strategy: Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Aftercare. Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace. Middle East Program (Carnegie Papers, No. 97, September 2008).
Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. Radicalization Study Group. Building Community Resilience to Violent Ideologies: A Discussion Paper. 2008.
Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilisation. Fourth Estate, 2005.
Hoffman, Bruce. “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism: Why Osama bin Laden Still Matters.” Foreign Affairs (May / June 2008).
International Crisis Group. “Understanding Islamism.” Middle East / North Africa Report (No. 37 – 2 March, 2005).
Lawrence, Bruce (ed.). Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. Verso, 2005.
Leiken, Robert S. and Brooke, Steven. “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.” Foreign Affairs (March / April 2007).
New York Police Department. NYPD Intelligence Division. Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat (prepared by
Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt). 2007.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police. National Security Criminal Investigations. Radicalization and the Internet: Questions and
Discussion Points. 2006.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police. National Security Criminal Investigations. Words Make Worlds. 2008.
Sageman, Marc. Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. University of Pennsylvania, 2008.
Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Knopf, 2006.