It takes a village to raise a terrorist, and a village to stop one

In 1996 then First Lady Hillary Clinton published a book It Takes a Village which was essentially a tome on how to raise children.  The main argument centred on the responsibilities that everyone has to contribute to the shaping of productive, well-adjusted citizens and was a bit of a call to an earlier age where this kind of practice was apparently the norm.

As with children, so with terrorists   Just as kids are shaped by their surroundings, so are terrorists.  I have argued many times that the notion of “self-radicalisation” is inaccurate and an unfortunate deviation from reality that leads us astray and results in bad decisions.  As with everything in life there are exceptions but these instances of apparent self radicalisation are too few and far between to be of any consequence and do not contribute to a robust understanding of violent radicalisation in general.

If I am right that terrorists develop in their environments then it stands to reason that during the transformation from citizen to terrorist there are signs that those in that environment can pick up on and address, or have others address them.  The occurrence of overt changes during the process of violent radicalisation path was certainly something that I saw with regularity during my time at CSIS.

These indicators are not reserved for Canada of course.  According to an article in the Times of India 12 residents of a village in Kerala State disappeared in July 2016 and are believed to have joined Islamic State.  Among those who left are a dentist, a doctor, two engineers and a commerce graduate – so much for the stereotype that only the marginalised become terrorists.  Villagers admit that they missed the signs – and there were signs.

It should not be surprising that a dozen people radicalised in this small village for radicalisation happens in social environments.  I have no insight into what actually took place in India but I bet there was some radical teaching and mutual reinforcement among the members of the group.  Radicalisation after all serves to implant new ideas, reject old ones and prevent counter messages from interfering.

We have also seen this clustering in Canada.  Groups of people have radicalised in several cities and embarked on violent pathways.  Some focused their attentions inward: the Toronto 18 and Project SAMOSSA in Ottawa are two good examples.  Others have elected to leave Canada to join terrorist groups abroad.  We have seen small groups in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Windsor, London, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal make that choice.  In each case, those who ended up terrorists knew each other and fed off each other’s descent to violence.  And in every single case there were concrete, visible signs that these individuals were heading down a wrong path.  Why nothing was done – at several levels – is unclear.

If radicalisation requires a network to solidify then it follows that a network is required to identify people in the early stages, know what to look for and intervene or reach out for help.  Communities must get past their reluctance to get involved and have the courage to get others involved when it is clear that internal resources and approaches are insufficient.  The Canadian government used to have a good track record when it came to dealing with communities on violent radicalisation and it is hoped that the forthcoming Office of the Coordinator for Counter Radicalisation and Community Outreach will relaunch these efforts.

Violent radicalisation is an issue for all of us in Canada.  We cannot allow CSIS and the RCMP to be the only ones active on this file: besides, by the time those two agencies get involved it is usually too late to do anything but investigate and lay charges.  Communities are a huge part of early response and are best placed not only to see someone in trouble but provide meaningful assistance.

It was Canada’s Marshall McLuhan who is usually accredited with coining the term “global village”.  It takes a village at a much smaller scale to help those on the road to violent radicalisation.

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.

Leave a Reply