One place where selfies are not allowed

I have often said – and written – that there is a lot of misinformation on terrorism out there.  As the field of scholars has expanded – and this is generally a good thing – and the number of attacks has spawned more and more media stories, some of what we read and hear is at a minimum unhelpful and at a maximum counterproductive or even dangerous.

For those who have known me throughout my intelligence career and beyond, they will be familiar with the one falsity that constantly gets my goat.  I refer of course to the misnomer that is “self-radicalisation”.

This term is ubiquitous – and wrong.  It comes out whenever an attack takes place where the perpetrators were not sent on a suicide mission by some shadowy organisation abroad or whose descent into violence occurred largely or exclusively in the West.  To embrace this term is to accept that an individual anywhere in the world can miraculously radicalise to violence without the aid of any outside influence.  It is inaccurate.  In almost 15 years of looking at cases in Canada I did not come across a SINGLE case of self-radicalisation.  So either I am really thick or it does not happen (yes, I am biased but I will go with the latter).

The process of radicalisation is inherently social.  It occurs when people interact with people.  That interaction can take place in the real world or in the virtual one, or more likely nowadays in both at the same time.  Just because the lion’s share of one’s actions are via social media does not entail that they are one-sided and passive.  People who end up as violent radicals always need reassurance and assistance as they navigate the world of terrorism.  That confirmation comes from others.

I was very pleased to see the FBI state that at this stage in its investigation of the San Bernardino shootings they are uncertain who radicalised the couple, where the radicalisation took place and how long it unfolded (although they concede that they had “long been radicalised”).  In other words, the couple were not self-radicalised.  This is indeed progress.

I wish the FBI and its partners every success.  This task will not be easy.  It was my experience that trying to uncover the facts after a terrorist attack or the departure of a foreign fighter is fraught with difficulties.  Information is hard to come by.  People can’t remember earlier events because often those events seemed innocuous at the time.  Sometimes there is no easy answer since the radicalisation process developed over time and the actors and influencers each played a small role and it is only from the aggregate that the finished product results.

The danger in continuing to use the term is two-fold.  First it creates the fearsome image that a person can surreptitiously adopt a violent ideology irrespective of surroundings and that this person is undetectable.  On the contrary: there are ALWAYS signs (forensic psychiatrist Reid Meloy calls it “leakage”) that can be noted and upon which action can be taken.  Secondly it can lead us to ignore the environment in which radicalisation takes place, thus missing the presence of radicalisers and blinding ourselves to future instances of violent extremism.

I am under no illusion that the term self-radicalisation will disappear.  We are stuck with that and “lone wolves”.  Nevertheless, the use of this language can and must be challenged.  If we don’t we fail to come to grips with what is actually happening.

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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