Do radicalisation indicators work? Damn straight!

I have just returned from the 2016 Anti-Terrorism and Active Shooter conference in Niagara Falls where I was honoured to have been asked to open the 2-day event with a talk on Western foreign fighters.  The conference, now in its fourth or fifth year, has rapidly become a go-to event and one of the premier gatherings of terrorism experts in North America and both Niagara Regional Police and the Ontario Provincial Police (especially the Anti-Terrorism Section) should be congratulated on yet another excellent effort.  Unlike most terrorism conferences, this one eschews the usual lineup of academics and brings in expert practitioners who have first hand experience in terrorist and active shooter situations. Previous conferences have featured officials who lived through the Mumbai bombings in 2008, the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012 and the Boston Marathon attacks. These people don’t come to talk theory: they share best practices, what went well and what could have been done better.

This year’s convention featured a talk on a case in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area)  in the summer of 2014 when three young women, aged 15, 17 and 18, all bright, well adjusted individuals, disappeared from their  homes.  Concerned parents called in a missing person’s report and police officers went to talk to the families.  Except that this was not a case of girls having run away from home because they had a fight with their parents or had broken up with their boyfriends.  These three were on their way to Syria to join Islamic State.

In the end it all came off well.  Information was quickly shared and the girls were tracked down, held and returned to Canada.  Had they got to Syria, their fate would have been disastrous – rape, forced marriage to multiple fighters, death.

The primary reason why this situation was resolved to the relief of the girls’ parents was the fact that the police officers knew what questions to ask when they first appeared at the homes.  And they knew what questions to ask in part because there is a good chance that they had attended one of many training sessions I have provided over the years  on the signs of violent radicalisation (I have spoken to police audiences across Canada on terrorism since 2002: several officers at the conference in Niagara Falls told me directly that they had benefited from one of my talks and that the info provided had made a difference).  For there were signs, overt signs, that the parents had noticed but dismissed out of ignorance (no this is not criticism of their roles as caregivers: you don’t know what to see as problematic if you don’t have the training).  So, it appears that training in detecting behaviours and attitudes that could be linked to the process of violent radicalisation can prove useful.

Or not, according to an article in the Toronto Star by Azeezah Kanji.  This “legal analyst and writer” excoriates any effort at counter radicalisation and states that “It is highly doubtful that surveilling beliefs and behaviours with no established causal relationship with violence will make Canada any safer. What it is almost certain to do, however, is make already-vulnerable communities less secure than ever.”

Tell that to the parents of those three girls Ms. Kanji.

I agree with her that there are far too many CVE programmes out there and little oversight into what works and what doesn’t. The field is very young and there are undoubtedly people out there with no qualifications seeking government money to “do CVE”. It is almost as if there is a new realm of “CVEology”.  We definitely need better scrutiny.

But that does not mean that it doesn’t work and, furthermore, we cannot wait for years of research and evaluation before trying something. People are radicalising and making poor decisions right now and some of these will end up in places like Syria dead, leaving devastated families behind. Inaction is an abomination.

As an aside, I have to say this: Ms. Kanji has written some deplorable stuff on terrorism and radicalisation in the recent past and is a prime example of how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  By all means, ask tough questions and hold people’s feet by the fire.  But my advice to her is don’t say (or write) stupid things about efforts of which you know little.

Yes, behavioural indicators do work.  No, they are not a panacea and they are not perfect.  But they can help identify those who need help.  To claim otherwise is foolish.  Three young women are home safe because some smart and dedicated police officers knew what to ask.  That proof is good enough for me.

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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