Not a Sunni proposition

I have already talked a bit about the Sunni-Shia split in an earlier piece (Brothers at Arms).  Today’s thoughts are along a different pathway.

When I worked in the intelligence world and looked at violent radicalization, the focus was entirely on Sunnis, not Shia.  Of course, there were other kinds of violence to worry about – right wing, left wing, single issue, sovereignist (the Freemen movement) – but I looked solely at the Al Qaeda-inspired guys.

I always maintained, and still do, that Shia radicalization was a different beast.  Largely tied to HIzballah, as the largest and potentially most lethal terrorist group, the Shia did not seem to engage in the same rhetoric as their Sunni brethren.  And they didn’t seem to be flocking to join terrorist groups abroad (what the Canadian government has termed the Foreign Fighter or High Risk Traveler problem).

That may be about to change.

The sheer number of atrocities committed by Sunni extremists against the Shia are too many to list.  Shia in a wide variety of countries – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria – are being killed by Sunni terrorists.  And the rhetoric employed by the extemists against their co-religionists shows no signs of ebbing.  As recently as the middle of May, a radical Egyptian cleric called for a war on the Shia or else “the Jews and Crusaders will become the decision-makers in our own countries.”  (courtesy MERIA)The fact that this sentence makes absolutely no sense is irrelevant: what is important is the call to arms.

So, will we see an upswing in the departure of Shia Muslims from Canada, other Western countries and elsewhere to join groups claiming to defend their faith brothers and sisters?

It’s hard to say.  So much research has been carried out on Sunni foreign fighters by agencies such as the UK’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) that the Shia angle appears to have lagged (NB if there is credible research out there I’d love to hear about it).

Here in Canada, CSIS has stated publicly that there are around 145 Canadians fighting abroad, although that number has not been broken down into either geographic destination, group affiliation or ethnicity/religion.  So we don’t know how many Shia are in that group.  But I would be very surprised if the number is anywhere near the total of Sunnis.

Since the historical enmity is unlikely to go away, and the extremists won’t change their views on the Shia, it is entirely possible that some will answer the cri de guerre.  In Pakistan, the Sipah e Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) is a Shia militant group formed partly to seek retribution for Sunni extremist attacks by groups such as Sipah e Sahaba (Army of the Companions of the Prophet).

And if Canadian Shia go to fight there are two serious implications for national security: what happens when they come back (to be discussed in a future blog) and will they engage in violence against Sunni extremists here?

All in all,the question remains: will the proverbial hit the fan?

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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