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How to Stop Canadians From Becoming Jihadists

Criminalization alone is not best way to deal with radicalization, argue Alexander Corbeil and Reza Akhlaghi.

By: /
29 August, 2014
By: Alexander Corbeil
Senior Middle East Analyst with The NATO Council of Canada

Calgarian Farah Mohamed Shirdon joined his fellow Islamic State fighters in a ritualistic burning of passports, meant to symbolize the destruction of the artificial borders between Muslims and the creation of a new reality, that of a yet-to-be-announced Caliphate.

The video of the act, posted in April, highlights the growing threat from homegrown fighters to Canada’s national security.

Before burning his passport, Shirdon, whose death was reported in August, told those watching, “This is a message to Canada and all the American tyrants. We are coming for you, with permission from Allah the almighty.” In death Shirdon went from being a troubled man, who felt excluded, to an international jihadi star; a warrior who died for a holy cause, the establishment of a Caliphate incorporating Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel-Palestine.

Shirdon is not alone with his actions. In death he joins a number of other Canadians who have fallen while fighting with jihadi groups in overseas conflicts. In February, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Michel Coulombe, stated that 130 Canadians have gone to fight overseas with radical Islamic groups; with 30 of those individuals ending up in Syria. Furthermore, an independent study released at the end of last year placed the number of Canadians in Syria as high as 100. These numbers are alarming, and may also be underestimated, given the difficulty of collecting information in areas where state authority has collapsed. Whether or not CSIS’s numbers are correct or there is indeed a larger number of Canadians fighting in jihadist groups, the fact remains that this country’s young men continue to travel to Syria, where they can easily take part in hostilities or join the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign in Iraq.

In response to the unprecedented number — 3,000 from Western countries — of foreign fighters in the Syrian-Iraqi conflict, governments have taken a variety of approaches to safeguard their domestic sphere and prevent citizens from leaving for battlefields in the Muslim world. These approaches have fallen along a spectrum that ranges from social initiatives to outright criminalization, and have had mixed results in actively deterring individuals from joining these groups and dealing with them upon their return.

Canada has chosen to join states such as Belgium (with over 200 citizens in Syria), France (over 700), the United States (70-plus fighters) and Australia (150) in taking a largely criminal approach to the issue. The fear now is that such an approach would do little to address the underlying causes of radicalization, and instead could motivate others from similar communities to feel that they are being singled out by the state. In turn, criminalization may also carry with it the cost of increasingly alienating these young people and their communities.

To be clear, the threat of foreign fighters is real. At least one study on fighters who have returned from Islamic conflicts highlight that one-in-nine returnees have carried or attempted to carry out domestic terror attacks. These individuals return with combat experience; contacts to a radical global network; and an ideological outlook that at its core blames the West for inaction or worse — culpability in the persecution of fellow Muslims worldwide. Though, while some elements of criminalization of terrorist activities should be applauded and represent a step in the right direction from both policing and legal perspectives, they are not a cure-all for Canada’s foreign fighter challenges.

Among these crucial legal initiatives is the criminalization of any attempt by a Canadian to join a terrorist group. At the end of May, Mohamed Hassan Hersi, a 28-year-old from Toronto who looked to join the al-Shabaab militant group, was the first to be convicted for such an offense under Bill S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act. An amendment to the Criminal Code, the Canada Evidence Act and the Security of Information Act, Bill S-7, introduced new offenses to be recognized as acts of terrorism; its purpose was to increase penalties for concealing individuals who have committed acts of terrorism and enables preventative arrests, as executed in the case of Mr. Hersi.

The RCMP has also unveiled a number of programs to address this troubling phenomenon. The National Security Criminal Investigation program (NSCI), created in June of this year, is meant to reduce the instances of terrorist criminal activity and includes two initiatives: The Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSET) and the National Security Enforcement Sections (NSES). INSET is a network to share and jointly analyze intelligence with all levels of law enforcement and NSES, which includes various divisions of the RCMP, will enable our police to better address and react to terrorist threats.

The government is also said to quietly be putting the final touches on a national counter-radicalization campaign, headed by the RCMP and to be released later this year. While details of the program are slim, it is meant to help those in direct contact with radicalizing individuals by providing them with the necessary tools and understanding to address the issue and, with the help of the department of Public Safety, to create a counter-narrative to challenge the jihadist public relations campaign.

While the spirit of these initiatives is welcome, considering the secretive process involved and the RCMP as the lead agency, it seems this counter-radicalization strategy may take a strong, policing, approach to the issue. Also, the government will reportedly make the RCMP the intended first point of contact for concerned community members and parents, meaning community reluctance to involve the police will potentially hamper the ability of the government to address radicalization early and effectively.

Instead, community policing should be coupled with soft approaches to pre-emptively deal with radicalization and should not end when the individual attempts to or successfully travels overseas. This requires a whole-of-government approach, one which includes Public Safety Canada and the RCMP, to create a positive effect on identifying and curbing the growth of extremism and reintegrating those caught in its clutches.

As Mubin Shaikh, former CSIS informant in the Toronto-18 case and currently a PhD student in terrorism studies said in an interview: “A counter-narrative should include Canada’s Muslim community in cooperation with the government, private industry and non-profits. It should include theological appeals and work on the strengths of multiculturalism.” Such a counter-narrative must de-legitimize the extremist narrative by using both the strengths of Canada’s pluralistic society and religious guidance based upon Islamic teachings.

These young men must be made to feel that they are a part of Canadian society, as well as made to understand that their actions are not religiously condoned. This approach must involve community leaders, relatives, colleagues, social workers and organizations with experience in de-radicalization.

Canadian authorities must learn from the counter-radicalization programs of their European peers: which tactics and strategies work; how to partner with impacted communities; how to integrate individuals into Canadian society; and, how best to disrupt the networks that exploit these individuals. Only then will it be possible to fully understand and address the issue of radicalization in Canada, to pre-emptively tackle threats to Canadian security and deal fairly and equitably with radicalized individuals and the communities in which they live.

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