Neutralising the radicalisers

If there is one thing that any serious researcher or professional who has studied radicalisation to violence knows all too well is that the process or path from normalcy to extremism does not happen in a vacuum. And it certainly does not take place on one’s own.  The term “self-radicalisation”, all too frequently uttered by those with little knowledge of the phenomenon, is meaningless, inaccurate, unhelpful and interferes with both our understanding of the threat and our ability to deal with it.

No, radicalisation takes more than one person. Often many more than one.  Some of those who accompany an individual on the pathway are also being radicalised at the same time.  We saw this in Canada in the case of the Toronto 18 back in 2005-2006 and in the case of the four young men who left London, Ontario a few years ago, two of which died while participating in a terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013.

Sometimes people descend down the path of violent extremism with the help of a “radicaliser”.  These people usually have some unique combination of knowledge, charisma and manipulative skills to help those with questions and doubts and plant the seed, if you will, that sprouts into future terrorist action.  Most of these guys are smart enough to limit their words and advice so as not to cross any criminal threshold and attract undue attention from authorities.  In the absence of criminal intent, not much can be done and these radicalisers know that.  As a result, investigators have to satisfy themselves, often frustratingly, with monitoring their environments to get a picture of who, if anybody, among their acolytes is moving from thought to action.

So it is with great pleasure that I celebrate the conviction of a very significant radicaliser in the UK, one Anjem Choudary.  This venomous “leader” has been a thorn in the side of British security agencies, and the vast, vast majority of UK Muslims, for many years, but will now be serving a long jail sentence at one of Her Majesty’s prisons.  A scourge has been removed from the streets of London and that is indeed a very good result (authorities will have to keep a close eye on him in jail since it is 100% certain he will spread his poison among other inmates, but let us stay positive for a little while).

Given that Mr. Choudary has been very, very vocal in the most public way possible and has been of interest to UK agencies for a long time, some may ask “What took so long?”  Why was he not removed earlier before he could sow his extremism in the minds of so many?

The simple fact is that there is, and should be, a gap between criminal (and terrorist) thought and intent/action.  We have built societies where freedom of speech is sacrosanct and I think we all agree that is a good thing.  We do not want to arrest everyone who happens to have violent thoughts nor would we have the resources to do so even if we tried.  Prisons are for those whom we need to separate from society for our safety.

And yet someone like Mr. Choudary does indeed represent a menace.  Without people like him, radicalisation would not vanish, but it would be a slightly smaller problem.  Neutralising his insidious influence is, to my mind, a good move.

Nevertheless, we will continue to struggle trying to find the balance between security and Charter/constitutional rights and freedoms.  That too is a good thing: we must constantly challenge our assumptions and the actions we wish to take.  We need to be careful not to overapply the law but at the same time find ways to eliminate threats like Mr. Choudary.  We all agree that nothing useful or positive ever came out of that man’s mouth.  Yet, we have to tolerate, to a point, those whose views we find distasteful.  Still, men like Mr. Choudary need to be kept under watch to the extent possible and we need to divert those who fall under their sway.

I cannot imagine the anger and sense of futility felt by my British friends and former partners who had to stand back and allow Mr. Choudary to spread his bile over so many years.  Today, my friends, is a day of celebration – enjoy!

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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