Fitness changes, paying debts among CSIS's 'indicators' someone is 'mobilized to violence'

Changing up a physical fitness routine, getting rid of personal belongings and repaying debts are among a list of signs that Canada's spy agency says could show someone is taking steps toward terrorist activity — but those so-called "indicators" are something the public should be wary about, says one expert on radicalization.

'The public should be absolutely skeptical,' says researcher of the findings

A new report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) studied approximately 100 people who "mobilized to violence" in Canada, the majority travelling overseas "for extremist purposes," such as joining ISIS. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Changing up a fitness routine, getting rid of personal belongings and repaying debts are among a list of signs Canada's spy agency says could show someone is taking steps toward terrorist activity — but the public should be wary of these so-called "indicators," says one expert on radicalization.

The findings were made public in a new report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that studied approximately 100 people who "mobilized to violence" in Canada, the majority travelling overseas "for extremist purposes" such as joining ISIS. 

The report says it focuses not on why a person may become radicalized, but rather on how someone goes from radicalization to preparing for violent action, such as plotting an attack or travelling to join a terror group.

'You're never going to find some holy grail'

Drawing a line between "talker" and "walker," it defines "mobilization" as moving from an extremist intent to actual steps toward terrorist activity — a process it says takes on average 12 months. 

But for Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who researches Canadian extremism, the report raises more questions than answers.

"I generally shy away from discussions about indicators because I think every individual is different," he told CBC News. "You're never going to find some holy grail that is a key indicator for mobilization to violence."

The first indicator often seen is a change to a person's fitness routine, the agency says. That's usually followed by maxing out a credit card or repaying debts and putting up personal belongings for sale. Then, one might write a will or buy a plane ticket.

In an attack-planning scenario, one might purchase specific supplies or record a martyrdom video, the CSIS report says.

"It is important to note that a low-tech terrorist may require nothing more than a knife or a car," it says.

No control group 

Someone planning on carrying out violence may also take steps to conceal their activities from authorities, the report goes on, by encrypting their communications, coming up with a cover story to explain why they're leaving Canada or creating an alter-ego on social media.

'We shouldn't take CSIS's findings as somehow the gold standard.'—​Amarnath Amarasingam, post-doctoral fellow at University of Waterloo

The agency found that youth and young adults often mobilized in groups — young women especially. It also found that 27 per cent of "mobilizers" had a criminal history, but that those with violent criminal pasts were not more likely to move to terrorism.

CSIS acknowledges its report is limited. Because the agency can only collect information suspected to pose a threat to Canada's security, it couldn't establish a control group and couldn't test the so-called indicators against those in the general population: people who travel for work or pleasure, for example, or give financial help for legitimate purposes.

That means there's no way of telling for sure if the so-called "indicators" are unique to people moving toward violence and if they aren't also associated with people not "mobilizing."

Sources and methods likely classified

And that, in part, is why Amarasingam is cautious. 

"In how many cases out of the 100 they studied did they find a person clean out their bank account, or change their workout routine?" he asks. "I would love to know more about the frequency of these indicators."

Moreover, since the data behind the report is likely classified, Amarasingam says, there's no way of the public knowing what problems there might be with the sources and methods behind it.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, says the report raises more questions than answers. (Amarnath Amarasingam)

"We shouldn't take CSIS's findings as somehow the gold standard," he said. "There may be problems with how the data was collected, how the data was analyzed, the methods used and so on, which the public will never see."

CBC News asked the spy agency for a statistical breakdown of the indicators in its study, but was not provided with one. 

Spokesperson Tahera Mufti said CSIS analysts "aim to develop a set of truly diagnostic indicators that can be used to assess whether someone is mobilizing to violence."

"Despite these limitations, the service has a high level of confidence in the findings of this research and its utility in providing a better understanding of the distinction between radicalization and mobilization, as well as the mobilization to violence process," the report says. 

Azeezah Kanji, Toronto-based legal scholar who writes on national security, shares Amarasingam's concerns and says the report misses the mark in other ways.

She says the report "puts eye of scrutiny on the individual who is mobilizing" without thinking about what role the laws, policies and broader social context in which they live might play.

Individuals over policies

Kanji gives the example of Aaron Driver, a known ISIS sympathizer who was killed in the summer of 2016 in a confrontation with the RCMP after the FBI tipped Canadian authorities off about a so-called "martyrdom" video he had made.

Driver had not faced criminal charges, but was placed on a peace bond months before he was killed for fears he might go on to engage in terrorism. The RCMP applied for the peace bond because the agency "reasonable grounds to fear" he would "participate in or contribute to, directly or indirectly, the activity of a terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity."

"After he was killed, people argued that this showed that the peace bond regime wasn't rigorous enough. But on the other hand, we could have thought about it as a case where imposing extremely restrictive conditions on someone perhaps drove them to the point of such frustration … and drove them down a pathway to mobilization to violence.
Aaron Driver, 24, was killed in a police standoff in Strathroy, Ont. on Aug. 10, 2016. An investigation into the RCMP shooting concluded the use of force was justified. (Facebook)

For his part, Amarasingam applauds the spy agency for sharing its findings, but says the devil is in data. Unless that too is released, he says, "indicators" if taken at face value "have the potential to cause enormous harm in the already marginalized and stigmatized communities"

"I think the public should be absolutely skeptical," he said.