The challenge of detecting radicalisation

In Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel The Dark Forest (sequel to The Three Body Problem), a race from the Alpha Centauri system has identified Earth as a suitable home and is seeking to thwart any efforts from our planet to interfere with their takeover plans.  One of the new technologies developed by the “Trisolarans”, who can read everyone’s thoughts, is a device called a “sophon” that can eavesdrop on us and also muck up humans’ attempts to progress technologically in an effort to stop the invasion.

Humans, known of course for their ingenuity, come up with a programme called the “Wallfacers”, individuals selected to devise defence plans in secret, keeping their ideas to themselves in order to frustrate any counterpunch by the Trisolarans.  Not to be outdone, the latter assign “Wallbreakers”, one for each Wallfacer, to gain the upper hand.

What does any of this have to do with terrorism?  A lot actually.  More specifically with radicalisation.  All too often you read news stories of individuals who have adopted violent radical ideologies and either traveled to join terrorist groups abroad or carry out acts of terrorism in their homelands.  And all too often those around the terrorist swear that there were no signs of radicalisation and that the transformation of an otherwise “normal” human being came as a complete surprise to all.  It is as if the terrorists were Wallfacers, hiding their every intention and thought from the outside world.

Except that this is seldom how the process of violent radicalisation occurs.  Rather than an out of left field phenomenon, there are always changes and signs to pick up on, once one knows what to see as significant and what to dismiss as not relevant.  I have talked about these signs on many occasions and will not bore you with the details here.

If there are thus signs for the observing, the outstanding question remains: why is nothing done?  The answers are complex.  Some people in the terrorist’s ambit have no idea what radicalisation looks like and therefore do not know what to react to.  Others are in denial, or even sympathetic, if not complicit.  In some cases it may even be possible to be too close to the issue to be able to stand back and make an objective judgment.

When I was an intelligence analyst at CSIS we had advantages that few others did.  We could follow a terrorist’s path through court-granted intercept warrants, thus giving us insight into what a person said and wrote online.  We could recruit and run human sources against terrorists, having our assets gain their trust so they would share details on the ideology they had embraced.  We could also talk to the terrorists themselves: you would be surprised what you would learn from a violent radical even when they knew they were talking to intelligence officers.  I think that this kind of access is unprecedented and does provide a very broad, if incomplete, picture of the radicalisation process. My colleagues and I were successful in understanding the idiosyncratic processes of hundreds of individuals (although there were always gaps even we couldn’t bridge).

Even if friends and families do not have such comprehensive overviews they do have the benefit of close personal relationships.  They are in a position to detect drastic or even more subtle changes in behaviour and mindset and should be able to tell when a friend or child is heading down a dangerous path.  If of course they are open to the possibility that anyone, including a close friend or loved one, can become a terrorist and know what to keep an eye open for.

In Cixin’s novel the Wallbreakers take years to crack the plans of the Wallfacers.  They have but one purpose in life: figure out what these earthlings are planning and stop it.   When it comes to radicalisation we need more Wallbreakers.  It may not always take years, but it does take dedication, patience and the energy to wade through copious amounts of information.    I don’t know how The Dark Forest ends (I am not quite done) but I do know that if we collectively devote our time to identifying those heading down the road to terrorism we will be in a much better place to steer some aside and stop those we cannot divert from carrying out massive attacks.

Isn’t that worth it?

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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