The Current

Terror designation without investing in prevention and intervention work a 'Band-Aid solution': expert

The federal government is considering a terrorist designation for the far-right Proud Boys group. Matt Galloway discusses what the designation would mean and the work of deradicalization with two experts in extremism.

Federal government could designate Proud Boys as terrorist group

According to numerous media reports, members of the far-right Proud Boys group were among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Days after members of the Proud Boys — and other Pro-Trump supporters — stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Canadian authorities are collecting information about the far-right group as part of a possible terrorist designation. 

But according to American University's Cynthia Miller-Idriss, designation alone is not enough.

"Regardless of what we do with the terrorist designation, it's always a Band-Aid solution if we're not also investing in prevention and intervention work, and thinking about how to interrupt and create off-ramps for radicalization," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

As director of the university's Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, much of Miller-Idriss' work is focused on the prevention of and intervention in radicalization. 

She says that simply designating a group as a terrorist organization will not make them disappear, nor will it prevent radicalization.

"Designating groups doesn't mean you're going to catch people," she said. "There's a lot of individuals who radicalize online who don't belong to groups; the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995 — we have repeated case after case after case of individuals."

Gavin McInnes, center, founder of the far-right group Proud Boys, is surrounded by supporters after speaking at a rally in Berkeley, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

An eclectic threat

Canada's list of terror entities was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Listed groups suffer significant financial and operational consequences, including the inability to recruit and fundraise openly, as well as travel restrictions.

More than 50 organizations are currently listed, most of which claim to be Islamic. But in June 2019, two far-right groups — the international neo-Nazi network Blood & Honour, and its armed wing Combat 18 — were added.

The very notion that they were breaking the law, the very notion they could be arrested was almost beyond comprehension to them in terms of what they were doing...- Amarnath Amarasingam

Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism expert at Queen's University, says we're not accustomed to seeing fully home-grown organizations as terrorists, which is why it took so long for a far-right group to get that designation. 

"The entire kind of post-9/11 terrorism apparatus or national security apparatus has been focused on jihadist organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS for a long time," he said.

"So, we're accustomed to seeing that kind of threat look a certain way, come from certain regions and engage in activity like fundraising or recruitment domestically."

Terrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam says people are not accustomed to seeing fully home-grown organizations as terrorists, which is why it took so long for a far-right group to be designated that way. (Amarnath Amarasingam)

On top of that, Amarasingam says far-right organizations are more eclectic, so it's difficult to identify their organization's hierarchy.

"You saw that at the Capitol Hill riots where you had Oath Keepers there, you had Three Percenters there, you had Proud Boys there, and then you also had 60-year-old grandmothers with QAnon T-shirts," he said.

"So, it was hard to know what the threat looks like and what the parameters of this threat are because it's so eclectic and diverse."

He adds that while many of these groups have a domestic focus, they are transnational in nature, which makes their ideology hard to contain.

"Even when you look at far-right content in Canada, or far-right content in Australia, it often references things that aren't Canadian or Australian," he said. "So they're very much involved in a much more transnational conversation about white identity, Western European identity and things like that."

These complexities, according to Amarasingam, gave some members of these groups a sense of impunity, which culminated in events such as the Capitol Hill storming. 

"The very notion that they were breaking the law, the very notion they could be arrested was almost beyond comprehension to them in terms of what they were doing, because I don't think they were accustomed to thinking of themselves as part of a subcultural movement," he said.

'A complicated designation'

Despite the complexities of categorizing the far-right, Amarasingam says people's perception of whether far-right groups can be designated as terrorists has started to change, sparked on by tragedies such as the Charlottesville car attack, the Christchurch mosque shootings and the Capitol Hill storming.

But while he understands the rationale for designating the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, Amarasingam believes there are other organizations, such as the Atomwaffen Division or The Base, that are more threatening.

"They've been arrested, particularly in the U.S., for several kind of high-level bomb plots, assassination plots and things like that as well," he said. "We haven't yet seen any major kind of mobilization on that front, domestically speaking. But  the same organizations are active here and quite heavily."

Amarasingam also has some reservations with expanding the terrorism label to include more groups. Though he doesn't think it's a good idea for the list of terrorist organizations to focus almost exclusively on the Muslim community, he says care must be taken in casting a wider net.

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump climb on walls at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

Miller-Idriss agrees that it's a "complicated designation."

"The answer is not necessarily to extend that same regime of surveillance to other groups, but to find other means of addressing this and not repeating the same mistakes," she said.


Asked whether far-right group members can be deradicalized, Miller-Idriss says they can be, but it's extremely difficult to initiate that process.

She says what's much easier to do is to set up earlier off-ramps known as inoculation interventions, which involve teaching people what online manipulation and propaganda looks like so that they're more resistant to it when they encounter it.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss says the answer to combating far-right radicalization may not be to designate groups as terrorists, but rather to find other means of addressing this, such as prevention and intervention. (Elliott O'Donovan Photography)

"And we have evidence ... that teaching people about online manipulation is a really effective way of preventing them from getting there to begin with, and there are ways to do this at early stages where you're helping them understand that they're being tricked," she said. 

Miller-Idriss cites Germany's actions following a similar storming of German parliament by far-right protesters as being an example for what other countries can do to counter radicalization.

"The German government [passed] the most sweeping set of legislation and support for addressing right-wing extremism in the world," she said. 

"They've dedicated a billion euros to it, with 89 specific measures that include better coordination across law enforcement communities, but also includes prevention and intervention engagement, all kinds of programming."

As people move forward from the Capitol Hill storming, Miller-Idriss says she hopes there will be support at the global level for not just prison time and surveillance, but also "for education on the intervention one."

"Because in the end, that just leaves the law enforcement community and intelligence community having to be kind of perfect every time if we just allow things [to go] unchecked until something gets to the level of designating them a terrorist group," she said. 

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Joana Draghici, Lindsay Rempel and Paul Macinnis.