How much has our understanding about radicalisation grown since 9/11?

Last week saw the emergence of a very interesting report by the Montreal-based Centre for the Prevention of Radicalisation Leading to Violence (known by its French acronym CPRMV) on the situation at the College de Maisonneuve, from where several young people had left to engage in jihad in Syria.  The centre, which was stood up in March 2015, bills itself as ” first non-profit organization whose aim is to prevent acts of violence related to radicalization, and to support individuals affected by this issue ΜΆ radicalized individuals or individuals undergoing radicalization and their entourage, teachers and professionals in the field.”  It has been busy fielding calls from concerned community members although it is still unclear how many cases of intervention can be labelled “successes” at least based on what is available publicly.  Nonetheless this is a wonderful example of a grassroots initiative of what needs to be done on the counter radicalisation front.

But back to that report.  It does a good job of spelling out what radicalisation to violence is and where and how it occurs.  It does, in my opinion, put far too much emphasis on the roles of Islamophobia, bullying and alienation, but is nevertheless a very solid effort.

At the risk of ruffling feathers, however, there is nothing new in this paper.

Allow me to explain.  The phenomenon of violent radicalisation in Canada has been exhaustively examined for going on twenty years now.  Government agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP have produced study after study after study on this topic and their analysis is based on hundreds of cases in this country (the CPRMV paper is based on an n=11, a very, very small sample).  These analyses have been presented to the government of Canada over and over again.  They contain a lot of detail and cover every aspect of what was presented in the Montreal report (youth, schools, radicalisers, social networks, etc) .  We have studied this to the nth degree.

The fact that what we already have known for over a decade is not appreciated in Canada speaks to several problems in my view.  First, Canada has a terrible intelligence culture, unlike some of our allies like the UK and the US.  Intelligence is not valued, not read and not available to many who need it.  We sponsored research in a far too general way to look at issues we had already examined, in part because those making the decisions had not seen that body of work.  Secondly, our security agencies have done a terrible job of sharing what they know with the general public.  Hiding behind secrecy or “need to know”, they have missed many opportunities to inform Canadians in a general sense of what the threat is, what we have learned and what we are doing to confront it (this is actually the main reason I wrote The Threat from Within).  The time has come for a more robust dialogue between CSIS the RCMP and Canadian citizens.

So while I commend the CPRMV for its report and its efforts it seems clear to me that research on radicalisation and terrorism has reached a watershed.  If my reading of the literature is accurate, we need to move away from research that focuses on what is radicalisation (we have that part well understood) and why it happens (we will NEVER figure that one out to an extent that gives us any generalisation) to what to do about it.  And, most importantly, we must develop mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of early intervention and counter-radicalisation programming.  There are lots of good ideas out there but next to nothing on how to determine what works and what doesn’t.  Research could make a tremendous contribution and should be a significant part of the new government of Canada centre for counter-radicalisation and community engagement.

The challenge is clear.  The radicalisation field of study is well established.  Now is the time to carry out empirical research that will make a difference.


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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