Oh the places they’ll go!

When most people think about terrorism, they probably have some pre-set notions of what it looks like.  Terrorists are from disadvantaged backgrounds.  They are marginalised.  They have mental health issues.  They are inherently violent people.

All these preconceptions are wrong.  Or at least they are not very good at predicting who becomes a terrorist and why.  These characteristics may show up in some cases but be absent in others.

Here’s one more to add to the list: terrorists need large urban centres to discover and nurture the violent ideology that drives terrorism.

Wrong.  And we recently saw yet again a case here in Canada that undermines this notion.  The RCMP have arrested a man in Fort St. John and charged him on three terrorism-related counts (see story here).

Fort St. John is a small city (population 21,000) in northeastern British Columbia, about the same latitude as Fort McMurray, Alberta, known for its oil extraction economy.

Let me repeat that.  Fort St. John, population 21,000, in NE BC.  That puts it about 500 km as the crow flies from the nearest major Canadian city, Edmonton.  So much for the need to hide violent ideologies in the recesses of big cities.

In fact, the latest incident is consistent with what we have seen in Canada for more than 20 years.  Violent extremist have lived – and radicalised – in a number of small cities and large towns.  Here are a few examples:

– Kassem Daher, Leduc AB (Stewart Bell’s book Cold Terror gives an overview of his story) – population 24,000

– Andre Poulin, Timmins, ON (his Islamic State martyrdom video can be found on YouTube) – population 43,000

– Said Namouh, Maskinonge, QC (serving a life sentence for terrorism) – population 2,200

– John Maguire, Kemptville, ON (could be dead, could still be fighting for IS) – population 3,500.

I think you get the point.  Radicalisation can happen anywhere.  Big cities, small towns, hamlets (what else would you call Maskinonge?).  With the ubiquity of on-line voices and social media, people can make contacts, stay in touch, reaffirm their beliefs, get their doubts and uncertainties resolved and feel part of a larger cause. All from the comfort of their bedrooms (or basements) anywhere.

Note that Internet radicalisation is not the same as “self-radicalisation”.  Being on-line does not imply being alone.  Virtual relationships can be as close and influential as real-world ones.  People radicalising “on the Internet” are still engaged in information and ideological exchanges.

We need to divest ourselves of notions – like self-radicalisation and “it can’t happen here” – that may have been put forward as accepted wisdom and which “feel” right.  Agencies like the RCMP and CSIS are doing their utmost to locate and neutralise threats.  But they can’t be everywhere all the time.  People have to be aware of what radicalisation looks like and what to do about it.

Even in Fort St. John, BC.

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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