Another annoying selfie

I have often noted in my presentations that the terrorism analysis business is booming – pun intended.  By some estimates, more than 10,000 books on terrorism have been published since 9/11, and that is just counting the English-language ones.

Many of these books are excellent and insightful: some are atrocious.  The same can be said for the legions of on-line and mass media commentators: there are good and bad.

Sometimes though, an idea takes hold and gets repeated ad nauseum, despite an almost total lack of evidence or serious thought.  In my opinion, this is happening with the phrase “self-radicalized”.  It occurs almost daily, written in op-ed pieces or uttered by government officials.  It is often associated with a fear that people are radicalizing themselves in vacuums (or in their basements) and are hence harder for agencies like CSIS or the RCMP to locate and neutralize.

There’s one problem with this analysis: it isn’t accurate or supported by any data.

I’m not saying that self-radicalization is impossible, just that it is so rare as to be inconsequential.  All reliable studies have shown that radicalization is an inherently social process and that it involves people interacting with other people (be it in the real or virtual worlds, or more likely both).   The notion of an individual radicalizing him – or her – self without critical outside assistance simply does not happen often enough to worry about.  Besides, if someone is that good at concealing this kind of behavioural shift there is probably nothing that can be done about it.

So imagine my surprise this morning to read an op-ed piece in the National Post (access it here) written by Michael Ungar and Amarnath Amarasingam (full disclosure: I have worked with Amarnath and am quite impressed with his scholarship) where this awful term gets hauled out once again.  The full quote is:

“We must study why some vulnerable children will self-radicalize while others never will” (NB I have an issue with “vulnerable” as well and will address that in a future blog)

Why would the authors write such a thing?  No serious scholar would do so in my view.

It turns out they didn’t.  The quote does not appear in the main article and was likely added by an editor.

The article is otherwise well written and offers some promising ideas on how communities can address radicalization among their youth.  This is important because as the RCMP has stated, we cannot arrest ourselves out of this issue.

It’s too bad that the first thing to grab the reader’s attention in this important piece is the text box that contains this erroneous notion.

Just as some have called for a ban on “selfie sticks” (they ARE annoying!) perhaps we can launch a campaign to ban the term “self-radicalized”.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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