Canada's anti-radicalization programs lacking against domestic terror recruitment

The federal government will soon table new anti-terror legislation, which is expected to strengthen the country’s intelligence and surveillance programs. But some say these proposed measures don’t deal with the radicalization that leads to terror attacks.

Experts say federal anti-terror legislation could even play into hands of jihadists

Harper said the new legislation will "contain a range of measures to ensure that our police and security agencies have the tools" necessary to combat domestic threats. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Ottawa, Sydney, Paris — cities under siege by attackers on killing sprees. The killers weren’t sophisticated soldiers sent from terrorist networks abroad, but emerged from within the same country, in Canada, Australia and France.

The attacks have created a heightened urgency for governments to combat the threat of homegrown terrorism and radicalization.

In Canada, the federal government is set to table new anti-terror legislation by the end of the month, which is expected to strengthen the country’s intelligence and surveillance programs. It includes giving CSIS new powers to track homegrown extremists abroad and the ability to share information with other spy and enforcement agencies. 

What propels individuals to join radical groups is what we call the quest for personal significance.- Jocelyn Belanger, radicalization expert

But some say these proposed measures, which will be unveiled when MPs return to Parliament, don’t get to the heart of dealing with the radicalization that leads to terror attacks, especially as ISIS and other groups grow more sophisticated with their recruitment campaigns.

Michael Zekulin, a researcher with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says the legislation might even be playing into the hands of jihadist groups.

Social alienation could lead to radicalization

"They’re taking what we’re doing and trying to twist it to their advantage,” he said, in a “direct sort of message toward Muslims living in Canada," he said in an interview with CBC News.

"Do you want to live in a country where you are essentially under suspicion all the time and the police can surveil you and detain you for no reason?"

The social isolation of being a target can play a role in how someone becomes radicalized, added Jocelyn Belanger, a professor at L'Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

Media is the oxygen of terrorism. You're trying to spread a message and, basically, the media is allowing you to do this if they continue to loop it.- Michael Zekulin, researcher with the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies

"What my colleagues and I have found is that what propels individuals to join radical groups is what we call the quest for personal significance," said Belanger, who specializes in the study of radicalization.

"In other words, when people feel alienated from society or they see, also, the opportunity in gaining tremendous personal gain — for example, becoming a hero or martyr. Then, they become attuned to those narratives that provide a means to that very goal."

Belanger said one way to de-radicalize people is with centres and programs that provide psychological counselling and vocational education. Countries like Germany and Denmark have implemented such programs, and Belanger said what they do is try to fulfil the quest for personal significance in a positive way. 

"So former terrorists have a job and, through education, re-enter them into society," he said, adding that programs carried out in Sri Lanka see little to no recidivism. The lack of such centres in Canada, Belanger said, is a "major problem."

National inquiry on terrorist recruitment

The RCMP, however, is developing its own anti-radicalization program, called Countering Violent Extremism, expected to roll out this winter. RCMP said it will work with families of "vulnerable individuals" who are experiencing behavioural changes, per a CBC News report in August.

Groups such as the National Council of Canadian Muslims and Islamic Social Services Association have also taken on projects to counter terrorist recruitment
Calgary imam Syed Soharwardy wants Canada to carry out a national inquiry into domestic terrorist recruitment. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

But a Calgary imam wants the government to deal more effectively with the people who aid the slow-burning process of radicalization. 

"The source of the problem is the recruitment that takes place in Canada. Those people who are brainwashing our youth, those people who are funding their travel, those people who are facilitating their travel — they are the culprits behind this whole mess," said Syed Soharwardy, who's also founder of Muslims Against Terrorism and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada.

Soharwardy is among a number of Muslim leaders, as well as the mother of a Calgary jihadist killed while fighting in Syria, urging for a national inquiry to get to the bottom of extremist recruitment in Canada. 

Legitimacy through media repetition?

"Until we find out those who are causing the extremism and violence in our society, we cannot eliminated this attack of terrorism," he said.

The government has not yet said whether it will consider carrying out a national inquiry.

In the meantime, the University of Calgary's Zekulin cautions the media against propagating the terrorists' messages. 

"Media is the oxygen of terrorism. You're trying to spread a message and, basically, the media is allowing you to do this if they continue to loop it," he said. 

By repeating the names of people and organizations, he said media allows audiences to become desensitized to the spreading of terror, as well as providing legitimacy to the terrorists.

"For an individual, for example, who wants to be remembered and you keep repeating, repeating, repeating their name," he said, "they're actually fulfilling their goals. So somebody else who believes that might say, 'This is a great way to live on.'"