Federal government not tracking interventions with returning ISIS fighters

While turning radicalized men away from extreme, violent jihadi ideologies and helping them rejoin Canadian society remains a key strategy for the federal government, questions remain about how effectively it is meeting this lofty goal.

Public Safety pays for interventions, but doesn't know how many

Kurdish soldiers escort a man suspected of ISIS membership at a security centre, in Kobani, Syria, on July 21. Western governments have tacitly handed down guidance to the forces uprooting ISIS remnants on how to handle their citizens who joined the extremist group. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

Turning radicalized individuals away from extreme ideologies and helping them rejoin Canadian society is a key goal of the federal government, but it has little data on how well that fight is going.

The new Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence is supposed to be on the front line of this fight. It funds research and programs that "aim to prevent and counter radicalization to violence at the individual level." 

But the government doesn't know how many radicalized people are actually being spoken to, or who they are. Public Safety Canada says it can't provide statistics because the centre does not directly intervene with radicalized individuals.

Moreover, the groups the centre funds tend to focus on research over action.

"My fear is that we're almost researching this thing to death," said former CSIS officer Phil Gurski, author of the book Western Foreign Fighters.

Six projects are paid for by a public safety fund through the Canada Centre under the heading "action-oriented research." None carry out interventions with radicalized individuals.

Four more projects fall under the heading of "direct intervention/prevention programming," but it remains unclear why they are categorized as such. 

Two offer training programs for the Ontario Provincial Police; a third backs a series of expert roundtables on the use of social media, and a fourth, Project SOMEONE at Montreal's Concordia University, "promotes the use of social media and art in schools to build awareness and resilience, combat online hate speech and create space for dialogue."

In September, Public Safety Canada gave Project SOMEONE $367,000.

Deradicalization through poetry, podcasts

Gurski said he is troubled by the mixing of counter-terrorism and deradicalization with efforts to fight discrimination and hate speech.

"The vast majority of hateful people — and there's lots of hateful people online and lots of hateful people in Canada — are not terrorists. I think it's wrong to treat those things as the same even for research purposes."

Vivek Venkatesh, Project SOMEONE's director, told CBC News that his work does relate to jihadi-inspired terrorism.

"What we're doing with the analysis that we've conducted is, in fact, build a series of podcasts and counter-narratives through art-based pedagogy and poetry to empower the broader population in understanding how [ISIS] is using and abusing religious interpretations." 

'Security agencies are keeping an eye on every individual who poses a threat to Canada'

6 years ago
Duration 10:25
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale discusses how the government is dealing with the return of Canadian ISIS fighters

But Venkatesh has an unconventional outlook on the problem of terrorism, telling CBC that jihadi terrorism is not the main terrorist threat facing the West — although he didn't say which groups or ideologies are. 

"Go to the Global Terrorism Index and look through the major terrorist organizations and which countries are affected by terrorism in the worst ways and whether jihadism, as you're calling it, is in fact the biggest plague that the western world is perceiving right now."

The GTI, based on data collected at the University of Maryland, lists 19 of the world's 20 most deadly global terror acts in 2016 as having been carried out by groups inspired by Islamic fundamentalist ideologies, and the four groups it lists as the deadliest in the world are all jihadi groups (ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the Taliban). It says three-quarters of all western terrorism victims since 2014 were killed by people directed or inspired by just one jihadi group: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

'You can’t arrest your way out of this problem'

6 years ago
Duration 11:11
Phil Gurski and Lorne Dawson weigh in on the number of foreign fighters who have returned to Canada, and how best to deal with them

Quebec approach more effective?

Unlike the federal government, Quebec does collect statistics on the interventions it finances, through its Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence.

In its 2016 report, Quebec's Centre listed 119 interventions in cases of "politico-religious radicalization" — typically Islamist — as opposed to 11 in cases of extreme right-wing indoctrination.

But far-right radicals are increasing in number according to research director Benjamin Ducol, who wrote his thesis on the paths to radicalization taken by jihadis in Canada, France and Belgium.

Power Panel on returning ISIS fighters

6 years ago
Duration 4:50
Stockwell Day, Supriya Dwivedi, Chris Hall and Robin MacLachlan weigh in

Ducol says that, while his centre has dealt with people arrested at the airport on their way to Syria, it hasn't been involved with returnees and, as far as he knows, no-one else is either.

Research suggests extremists have lower rates of recidivism than common criminals, if counselled effectively, he says, but reaching the most dangerous ones remains an issue. 

"All the interventions that we do are on a voluntary basis," he told CBC News. "If they don't want to engage with us, we have no means to constrain them to have any contact with us."

How many are here?

Complicating the problem is an ongoing disagreement over how many jihadi returnees are in Canada. 

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told the House this week that "the number of returnees is in the order of 60." Others question why that number has remained the same for 18 months, rather than increasing as ISIS sinks and its foreign recruits jump ship.

Goodale said fighters who return are not given a free pass but remain under surveillance if they are deemed a threat, and efforts are made to prosecute them if it can be proven they acted illegally. 

"In almost every case we will want to be collecting evidence particularly from the battlefield to be able to prosecute, if that is possible under the criminal code," he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Thursday. 

There are two things most experts can agree on however: There are too many people involved in jihadi ideology for all of them to be surveilled round the clock; and the government has been unable to piece together evidence for prosecutions in more than a fraction of cases.

Rempel asks about ISIS in Canada

6 years ago
Duration 1:09
Alberta Conservative MP Michelle Rempel asks the government about the number of ISIS returnees in Canada

"You have to find an alternative," says Ducol. "You're not going to just leave these people wandering the streets. If you don't do anything, for sure you are going to have people who re-engage into violent extremism."

Gurski, the former intelligence operative, is skeptical about the effectiveness of deradicalization programs in the first place.

He says he'd like to see the government make greater efforts to hold returnees to account for their crimes.

"I want to know: What did you do while you were over there? And if I have to run a human source against you" — meaning, put an agent on your case — "to get that evidence then so be it. 

"Because the mere fact that you left the country to join ISIS is a criminal offence."