Fair stood the wind for jihad

Last week the Canadian Department of Public Safety issued its annual terrorist threat report.  You can read the whole thing here but I would like to comment on some of it in the paragraphs to follow.  The paper is unclassified and is intended to inform Canadians in a general way what the threat level is and what the government plans to do about it.  It is by definition vague since the government cannot share classified information openly although the Dutch government for one allows its intelligence services to write in much more detail than ours does (a practice Canada should really consider emulating).  Nevertheless, it is a useful document and is a welcome message on a topic that is usually not spoken of enough by those that know, leaving the field open to anyone who wants to fill the vacuum, including some who know next to nothing.

So what does the 2016 report tell us?  It reminds us that the “principal” terrorist threat comes from groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State and those inspired by these terrorist organisations.  No surprise there.  It goes on to talk about “extremist travelers”, also known as foreign fighters, a scourge that will challenge us for years to come (shameful self promotion: my second book, Western Foreign Fighters – the threat to homeland and international security, will appear in January from Rowman and Littlefield).  Next comes a throwaway paragraph about Hizballah, a terrorist entity that is always mentioned but does not, at least in my opinion, really pose a threat to this country.  The report also provides a useful explanation of how the government sets the threat level, gives a short international overview and talks about what Canada is doing about terrorism, ranging from arrests and prosecutions to helping other countries deal with their terrorism threat through a programme called Counter Terrorism Capacity Building.

Tucked in the report is a small section which I found very interesting.  Entitled “Participation of women in terrorist-related activities”, this snippet noted that approximately 20 % of extremist travelers from Canada of late are women.  This is a very new development not only in Canada and one that is getting increasing attention by scholars and practitioners, including some Canadian ones.

Women have always been part of terrorist movements but the numbers flocking to IS are unprecedented.  Women were once thought to be too “soft” or “maternal” to be terrorists.  That is not true and in fact was never true.  Some of the early anarchist terrorists of the late 19th century for instance were women.  For now however the sheer volume of female involvement is going to force us to come up with novel approaches to treat those that return to Canada as there are bound to be issues affecting women that may not be so important when it comes to men.

Luckily this new trend is being examined, as I noted, by some really smart people.  The ones I am familiar with include Dr. Laura Huey of the University of Western Ontario (which happens to be my alma mater), friend and former colleague Jessica Marin Davis who is publishing a book on women terrorists (Women in modern terrorism: from wars of liberation to global jihad – Rowman and Littlefield is putting that one out as well), ex-pat Canadian Mia Bloom, currently at Georgia State University, and Erin Saltman at the UK’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).  I am sure that there are others but you would be wise to seek out the works of these women to start.

It will be fascinating to watch as the role women play in terrorist groups shifts in the years to come.  There is also a movement to have women, especially mothers, play a more important role in counter terrorism (early intervention and counter radicalisation).

Terrorism is constantly evolving and the spike in female terrorists is but one more example of this.  I look forward to learning more.

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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