Quebec’s CVE efforts – bad input = questionnable output

When it comes to what to do to counter terrorism there is an easy answer. Find people radicalised to violence, follow them, arrest them before they strike, put them on trial, incarcerate them and throw away the key.  What’s not to like about this approach?  No one gets hurt, do they?

Indeed, this method does work well and is a necessary option, but it does have its downsides.  First, it is very expensive, in the trillions of dollars since 9/11.  Next, it is not foolproof: we saw what happens when terrorists fall through the cracks over the span of 48 hours back in 2014 when two attacks succeeded in Montreal and Ottawa.  Thirdly, it does divide communities and sets up obstacles between governments and society.  Lastly, it is not clear how long we can keep this up and everyone agrees that this is not the optimal solution (the “we can’t arrest our way out of this” motto).

A better way to deal with this issue is to combine hard and soft measures.  We’ve already talked a bit about the hard, which we will continue to apply when necessary, so what about the soft?  Such programmes are now called CVE – Countering Violent Extremism – and are all the rage these days.  Scarcely a week goes by without some conference somewhere in the world where the latest ideas are put forward.

These efforts are all very commendable and even if we don’t know what really works – and trust me we don’t when it comes to CVE – they are worth trying.  If we even convince one person that terrorism is a poor career move we have done something meaningful.

Canada is no slouch when it comes to CVE: when I was still working for Public Safety Canada, our initiatives were in demand everywhere.  I have yet to see quantifiable data showing that the programmes were effective but I sincerely doubt that they did any harm.  Kudos to the Canadian government for its aggressive proaction.

Within Canada, the province of Quebec has been the most active on this front.  Montreal established a de-radicalisation centre a few years ago and it will be interesting to see its progress.  The Couillard government has also announced a series of grants to secondary schools to create CVE programmes.  I salute this decision and wish the entrepreneurs every success.

My enthusiasm comes with a caveat however.  If a CVE proposal starts with wrong assumptions about how violent radicalisation happens, its chances of undoing – or preventing  – the process are hampered.  Reading an account of the projects in the Montreal Gazette today, I fear that the organisers are beginning badly.  Here are some of the buzzwords from that piece which shed light on what those involved think are drivers to violent radicalisation:

  • Islamophobia
  • prejudice and discrimination
  • racism
  • (lack of) self esteem and a sense of belonging
  • (lack of) integration
  • a need to express oneself

If these programmes help resolve these social and psychological issues then they will have accomplished much.  But they won’t have done much if anything to solve radicalisation for the simple reason that the alleged causes have little or nothing to do with it.  None of them are sufficient or necessary conditions for radicalisation: I spent an entire chapter in my first book The Threat from Within demonstrating why these are red herrings.

The bottom line in every case of violent extremism is the conviction that the West is at war with Islam and that “true” Muslims have a divine obligation to fight (jihad).  I do not see any of this reflected in the programmes’ aims (not that incorporating these aspects would have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting approval).  Unfortunately, it is these drivers we need to address if we ever hope to get somewhere.  That is certainly what the Singaporeans and the Saudis have chosen to focus on in their efforts.

Nevertheless the Quebec decision to give groups money is not a bad choice as some good results are probable and, if nothing else, it will get people talking about the issue.  But if we want CVE to have real impact we need to start from the correct basic assumptions and not rely on best guesses or collective wisdom.  That is the harder choice, but the right one.



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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