Canada's de-radicalization dilemma: Lots of approaches but no clear formula for success

Counter-radicalization is a new discipline, and as Canada prepares to set up its own program, it has the luxury of being able to study a range of different approaches being tried in other Western countries. But are any of them really working?

A look at how the British, Germans and Americans have tried to solve the problem

ISIS supporter Aaron Driver, 24, was killed in Strathroy, Ont., last week after the RCMP learned he might have been planning an attack. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Counter-radicalization is a new discipline, and as Canada prepares to set up its own program, it has the luxury of being able to study a range of different approaches being tried in other Western countries.

Unfortunately, it's not clear any of them are really working.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said this week the government is in the final stages of hiring a senior adviser to spearhead an anti-terror program with a new national office opening sometime in the fall.

Ralph Goodale says Canada will 'up our game' with counter-radicalization office set up by fall

5 years ago
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the government is considering two or three candidates to lead its counter-radicalization program with hiring expected in coming weeks. 0:51

U.K. model

Perhaps the most ambitious counter-radicalization effort is the U.K.'s Prevent program, which, as its name suggests, seeks to prevent people from getting caught up in jihadist ideology in the first place.

It requires teachers, doctors and social workers to report any person they believe shows signs of radicalization.

Those who are flagged are moved into a one-on-one mentoring program called Channel, which is designed to "demobilize" them and reintegrate them into mainstream society. Channel relies heavily on religious counselling by approved Islamic teachers.
David Cameron made some major changes to the U.K.'s Prevent program when he took power. (Sebastien Pirlet/Reuters)

In the early days of Prevent more than a decade ago, Britain's Labour government gave money to conservative Muslim organizations that publicly opposed terrorism but advocated for Shariah law. When David Cameron's Tories came to power, only religious mentors who backed liberal democratic ideas were hired. The government weeded out those who were overly critical of Britain's foreign policy, including its overseas wars.

One consequence has been that Channel's mentors are often perceived as "tame" government Muslims, undermining their ability to influence their angry young charges.

Prevent … or provoke?

Prevent, unlike many other European programs, is overseen by police officers rather than social workers. That's why many British Muslims fear young people flagged by Prevent could end up in jail. Only about 10 per cent of referrals come from within the Muslim community.

Critics say the most corrosive element of the Prevent strategy is that it operates in schools, creating an atmosphere of surveillance, self-censorship and mistrust.

And the program is only as good as the individuals who implement it, some of whom have been accused of showing a remarkable lack of judgment. One example would be the kindergarten teachers who wanted to refer a four-year-old after he drew a picture of his dad cutting a cucumber. They insisted the boy had pronounced "cucumber" to make it sound like "cooker bomb." 

"Anything that makes the great mass of U.K. Muslims feel more victimized, and more estranged and less accepted and more profiled, is not likely to be useful in the long run," said Clark McCauley, a lead investigator for the U.S. government's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (NC-START).

Germany's Hayat

Hayat ("life" in Arabic) is based on Germany's longstanding and successful Exit program, which seeks to help right-wing extremists who want to leave the movement and start a new life.

The difference, though, is that most of the jihadist sympathizers Hayat deals with aren't seeking help. They're typically referred after an attempt to leave for Syria, or because they associate with people who have joined terrorist groups.

Compared to the British approach, Hayat is less likely to alienate innocent people because it only deals with those who have demonstrated real allegiance to jihadist groups, rather than individuals who show signs of potentially becoming radicalized.
Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, has identified several conditions for successful de-radicalization. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The German state of Hamburg tries to achieve at least a couple of British counter-radicalization expert Peter Neumann's basic requirements for any successful program: friends or people the individual respects must be involved, and the individual must be introduced to a new peer group to replace the one that led him or her down the wrong path.

But no program can provide what Neumann says is the essential third plank: the individual must already have private doubts about what he is doing.

U.S.: Dissuasion or detection?

America's long tradition of freedom of speech and thought makes something like Britain's intrusive Prevent program a tough sell.

The Americans prefer to focus on what people are doing or talking about doing, rather than what they are thinking or watching. This prevents wasting time and resources on those who authorities believe will never move from ideology to action.

But unlike some European programs that try to reassure Muslim communities that people who get reported will be counselled and guided rather than flung in jail, the U.S. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program is focused mostly on catching and locking up potential terrorists.

The FBI has built many successful cases with undercover agents providing suspects with money, material and — critics allege — egging them on to plot specific attacks.

So where the Europeans will usually try to talk a radicalized individual out of his violent ideas, U.S. investigators will often try to fire him up to take the next step so they can gather evidence for court.

In Canada, the pressure-cooker bomb plot case against B.C.'s John Nuttall and Amanda Korody was thrown out last month on grounds of entrapment.
John Nuttall, 41, and Amanda Korody, 32, were released last month after a B.C. Supreme Court judge entered a stay of proceedings in their terror plot case. (Canadian Press)

"The defendants were the foot soldiers, but the undercover officer was the leader of the group," said B.C. Supreme Court Justice Catherine Bruce. "The world has enough terrorists. We do not need the police to create more out of marginalized people."

Does anything work?

Experts tend to agree that a poorly designed counter-radicalization program can do more harm than good if it isolates and stigmatizes the Muslim community. Feelings of alienation and persecution are fertile soil for jihadist recruiters to plant their seeds.

Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi founded the Washington-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), the only European-style de-radicalization program funded by the U.S. government. She says all programs suffer from the fact they can't prove their successes.

"You cannot prove that a person didn't become a terrorist as a result of your programming," she says.

"No study in the world has identified a single driver of terrorism. There is no terrorist profile. So what we try to measure is can we make people feel a sense of purpose: 'Am I valued? Do I belong?'"

An independent evaluation of WORDE for the U.S. government showed 80 per cent of the people it mentored reported positive changes in their attitudes.

Some doubt that religious counselling can be effective in reaching hard-core fundamentalists. American terrorism researcher Clark McCauley likens it to "trying to get a Lutheran minister to preach to a bunch of Southern Baptists. They're not going to pay attention."

And yet, with few better options, Canada is determined to try. 


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