A newly obtained study by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) shows that “Islamist extremism” is still a central concern for the federal spy agency. In specific, the heavily redacted document underscores the Service’s focus on the development of so-called homegrown terrorism.

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A newly obtained study by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) shows that “Islamist extremism” is still a central concern for the federal spy agency. In specific, the heavily redacted document underscores the Service’s focus on the development of so-called homegrown terrorism.

In “A Study of Radicalization: The Making of Islamist Extremists in Canada Today”, CSIS draws a number of conclusions by analyzing several indicators from an unclear pool of study subjects. It turns out that going to a mosque isn’t what radicalizes a person. Broadly speaking, theology in general is not the engine that drives some Muslims to take up arms against the West. However, the study does not specify as to what the major root causes are, and how the problem can be addressed effectively.

“Most are religious novices,” the study says, “there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.” Furthermore, many of those “radicalized leave Canada to go join organizations like Al-Qaeda, or Al-Shabaab in Somalia. They don’t always stay in Canada to plot against, say, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Despite the admission that the trends of radicalization remain elusive, the report concludes that religious and immigrant communities are not incubators of terrorism, and more work has to be done to determine exactly what “radicalization” is and how it develops over time.

“The study, or what was obtained of it, is really a summary of what the findings are,” says Jeremy Littlewood, an international affairs professor and counter-terrorism expert at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It concludes quite clearly that radicals are mostly well-integrated into Canadian society, have a high degree of education, and are not dwelling on the fringes of society.”

“It concludes quite clearly that radicals are mostly well-integrated into Canadian society, have a high degree of education, and are not dwelling on the fringes of society.”

“It was noted that while radicalization is a very idiosyncratic, individual process,” the report says, “five significant drivers appeared regularly: family influence, conversion, foreign travel, the influence of a radicalizer and the belief that Islam is under attack (the so-called ‘Common Narrative’).” In other words, these drivers are local influences that try to push the subject to adopt a political worldview that vilifies the West.

Littlewood notes that despite the drawing down of the conventional wars in Afghanistan and even Iraq, such attitudes may persist given the numerous other connections Western countries have with the Middle East. Such things may involve Canada’s strengthened relationship with the state of Israel, which occupies the Palestinian Territories. Or they may involve the United States’ drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. In other words, Canada’s political commitments and policies on the international stage have a lot to do with how anti-Western narratives are formed.

This seems to be the conclusion of numerous other major studies done on terrorism in the post-9/11 era, including the massive study by Seth Jones and Martin Libicki of the RAND Corporation in 2008, as well as the numerous studies done by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) at the University of Chicago. CSIS, through this particular study and other public reports, do not explicitly draw such a conclusion. The government’s concern over this type of threat to national security remains highly generalized.

Professor Mohammad Fadel from the University of Toronto maintains that the so-called “radicalization threat” is severely exaggerated. “If the general trends of violence and incidences are going down, then why the increasing scrutiny and surveillance?” Fadel asks. One aspect of Canadian counterterrorism that comes to mind in this context is the use of security certificates, where the accused “terrorist” cannot even directly view the evidence assembled against him or her. Take the case of Muhammad Mahjoub, who was arrested on a certificate in 2000. For over a decade he was jailed without a trial, tortured, placed under house arrest under the strictest rules, and had to go on a 76-day long hunger strike to protest his treatment. Finally, in the summer of 2010, a federal court ruled that parts of the case assembled against Mahjoub were gleaned from torture, and cannot be accepted as evidence. To this day, Mahjoub still remains under house arrest. Although not as prolific as the United States when it comes to bad counterterrorism policy, Canada is no slouch when it comes to sacrificing the protected rights of certain people in favour of some nebulous and flimsy “common good.” In fact, a great amount of evidence actually suggests practices like the security certificates are more likely to anger Canadian Muslims towards their government.

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Despite the findings on radicalization and homegrown terrorism  (and how such a thing develops), CSIS maintains that it is the biggest threat posed to the safety of Canadians. In their latest Public Report (2010-2011), CSIS notes that “Although the face of terrorism continues to be a diverse one, today the most salient threat has the form of Islamist extremism.”

“A Study of Radicalization” points out that 24 arrests and charges have been made since the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed in 2001, but does not provide the actual number of the data that was observed. Nonetheless, 24 is a comparatively low number. But within two weeks last year, two unidentified Canadians were implicated in terrorist attacks in Bulgaria and Algeria, which underscores the global characteristic of terrorism.

It may be that the concern of such extremist violence is a real one, but the government has not put the numbers in context, nor does the recent study specify how homegrown terrorism will be fought. Furthermore, despite noting that radicalization is a process that is highly personalized to an individual’s specific circumstances, the study does not specify how these circumstances can be manipulated in order for the subject to buy into a rigid worldview where violence is a plausible solution to everything.

Mark Fallon, a former US counterterrorism officer, also notes that a better understanding of how violent extremism is developed is needed in order to deal with terrorism effectively. He stresses that in both Canada and the US, there has been significant co-operation from the Muslim population. “The Muslim community helped and assisted law enforcement in 75 percent of all Al-Qaeda related plots since December 2009—a remarkable number,” he says. Fallon points out that, consistent with the findings of the CSIS study, homegrown terrorism has little to do with immigrants importing their foreign ideologies into Western countries and causing mayhem. This point has yet to be fully incorporated into the national political framework in terms of dealing with immigration security and homegrown terrorism.

Citing the Bulgarian bus bomber (yet to be named and charged) who obtained Canadian citizenship when he was eight years old, Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney is seeking to strip Canadian citizenship from all dual nationals convicted of committing terrorism. This is an effort to shore up immigration security in order to keep out terrorists who may influence more Canadians to commit crimes. However, this reactionary move ignores the CSIS study showing that homegrown extremists are mostly influenced within Canada, and not elsewhere. The issue is not a matter of taking on foreign or immigrant ideologies, but rather preventing them from adopting such beliefs.

This type of policy gap underscores the lack of cohesive understanding needed to deal with violent extremism as understood by experts like Mark Fallon. The root causes of so-called “Islamist extremism” need to be understood and addressed in full if the Harper administration is to try to decrease radicalization.