Another lost man lost to radicalisation?

If there is one thing I have noticed in my post-intelligence life it is the quality of reporting on terrorism and violent radicalisation.  When I worked for CSIS I had access to far more information, not available to the public of course, on these two issues and was thus very well schooled in the who, where and how of Canadians adopting violent extremist views.  Now that I am a former intelligence analyst I am limited to the same sources that regular Canadians read.  I must confess that the transition was a bit of an adjustment: after all, thirty years of reading very intriguing material does make one spoiled.

While on the inside, so to speak, I felt no need to keep up on open information.  Now I depend on it.  And I am happy to report that I have been very impressed with a lot of the work being done by the media and academics.  I find it to be of high quality and of great use to me as I continue to move forward in my search for understanding of terrorism and violent radicalisation.

I write this just after having read an excellent piece by Rachel Browne of Vice News on the case of Tevis Gonyou-McLean, a young convert to Islam who was placed on a peace bond by the RCMP at the end of August for fear he would participate in a terrorist act.  I do not want to rehash the argument over peace bonds, since I have flogged that particular horse a lot lately, but I do want to revisit some other points of interest in the article.

Mr. Gonyou-McLean was described in the article as having had a troubled life.  He was a drug user, struggled with (unidentified) mental health issues, found Christianity, left Christianity, deteriorated and finally converted to Islam, but veered down the path of an extremist interpretation of the faith.

You may find this story typical: a person in difficulty struggling with internal and external demons eventually settles into a lifestyle that promises an answer only to lead to arrest.  It may remind you of Martin Couture-Rouleau or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (both terrorists killed in Canada in October 2014) or even John Nuttall and Amanda Korody (the acquitted Victoria, BC bombers).  Except that they are not typical because when it comes to violent radicalisation there is no typical.

Allow me to explain.  The more you study this phenomenon and the more cases you examine the more you come to realise that there is no pattern.  Those that embrace violent extremism come from all walks of life and all backgrounds.  There is no template for those that make the decision to adopt extremism.  Serious and reliable studies have shown this time and time again.

This is not to say that in some cases people with “issues” (psychological problems, substance abuse, broken families, poor performance at school or work, failed relationships) do not end up extremists.  Some do.  But here is the problem.  The vast, vast majority of those with some or all of the aforementioned issues do not radicalise, and many with few or none of these issues do radicalise.  That is precisely why we can’t profile this phenomenon.

We also have to be very careful with the distinction between causation and correlation.  No one knows what definitively causes radicalisation although some believe that certain factors make one more or less vulnerable to the process (maybe).  Fortunately, we see certain behaviours and attitudes correlate with violent radicalisation and it is this knowledge that we can use to identify people for intervention – if early – or investigation – if later.

We confuse causation and correlation at our peril.  If we identify something as causal and it is not we might conclude that addressing that factor will solve the radicalisation problem.  It may for a specific case but we cannot extrapolate beyond that one case in a general way.  Actually we could of course but that will not result in a satisfactory resolution.  Violent radicalisation is such an individual, idiosyncratic process that we have to accept that it is not reducible to a small number of drivers. I don’t care how much more we study this – and we have been  studying it for decades already – there is no magic formula.

One aspect of the story caught my eye.  Mr. Gonyou-McLean was ordered not to communicate with several people, including Awso Peshdary.  If that name is familiar it should be.  Mr. Peshdary was first arrested in conjunction with Project SAMOSSA in 2o10 and was re-arrested in 2014.  I don’t know if he was the one who helped radicalise Mr. Gonyou-McLean but I do know that there is ALWAYS a human radicaliser involved.  The fact that one of the conditions is not to talk to Mr. Peshdary is, shall we say, interesting.

I do want to end on a positive note, however.  I congratulate Ms. Browne on her post.  I found it riveting and I thank her and all the others who write these pieces for public consumption.  You all give me the raw data to continue my quest of understanding why ordinary people do extraordinary things.

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.

2 replies on “Another lost man lost to radicalisation?”

Hi Phil
Interesting, thoughtful post. A few points.
There is recent research by Emily Corner, Paul Gill et al, [Mental Health Disorders and the Terrorist: A Research Note Probing Selection Effects and Disorder Prevalence] in which they point out that the claim there is no template for those who become extremist may well be a shibboleth. The cite with approval Merari:
By and large, the opinion that terrorists do not have a common psychological profiles rests on the absence of research rather than on direct findings. A scientifically sound conclusion that terrorists have no common personality traits must be based on many comparative studies of terrorists from different countries and functions, using standard psychological tests and clinical interviews. As such studies have not been published, the only scientifically sound conclusion for now is that we do not know whether terrorists share common traits, but we cannot be sure that such traits do not exist.
The second point is that radicalization is likely not a process – like making a cup of coffee: boil water, put coffee in cup, add water, add milk, add sugar, stir….
Radicalization is more like a transformation or change in belief that takes place at different speeds, for different people – and in different contexts. If this is so you would not expect to see the same sort of thing happening time and again.
The third point is that there likely is no ‘small number of drivers’ – I’m not sure what a driver is in any case. It may well be its a bit like a swiss cheese problem – lots of different things have to line up so you get the hole to run through it. It may be you have to have an individual with certain vulnerabilities, running into a situation they find difficult, then they run into someone offering a solution and then they form a belief that they have to go off and fight for Allah or whatever.

Good points Martyn, thanks for making them. I am aware of Corner and Gill’s work and think highly of it, although it does not change my view that there is no predictive element to terrorist activity. I also agree that radicalisation is more of a transformation although we see it as a process. Finally, your last point supports what I have been saying for years: the whole thing is a “perfect storm” of elements.

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