Signs of the times

Another group of young people disappears and ends up in Syria.  Another set of families devastated.  Another series of criticisms levied against the government for not stopping it.  Another lament of “we didn’t see this coming”.

The departure in February of three bright, accomplished young women from Bethnal Green in East London has shocked many (see New York Times article here).  The same shaking of heads and lack of comprehension has come to the surface as some now talk about how successful the Islamic State is and its version of “girl power”.  Several academics are diligently researching the phenomenon of female “jiihadis” – the current wave is unprecedented in history.  Researchers (especially Erin Saltman) at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in the UK in particular  have issued some amazing work such as their paper “Becoming Mulan”.  Laura Huey at Western and Amarnath Amarsingam at Dalhousie here in Canada are also providing valuable insight .

But what struck me as I read the comprehensive NYT piece was the number of solid, reliable behavioural indicators that should have led those in the girls’ ambit to question what was going on.  Note that I am not blaming anyone for “allowing” this to happen: the blame game is a waste of time.  And of course, hindsight is 20-20 as they say.  So, how can we make hindsight foresight?  Read on.

Among the clear indications that the girls were undergoing changes consistent with radicalisation were:

  • a deterioration in homework quality (red flag for otherwise very bright students)
  • defending the Islamic State in class
  • a sudden jump in religiosity (you have to be careful with this one since becoming devout is not a reliable sign of radicalisation)
  • a sudden inexplicable change from “Western” to conservative dress (ditto for this one)
  • a “noticeable change in attitude” detected by friends
  • obsession over the war in Syria
  • self-isolation and obsession with social media stories on conflict and atrocities
  • a family member who may have entertained radical views (one of the fathers)
  • scolding family members for being “un-Islamic”

And there were probably more.

So how do we get this information and awareness raising into the hands of families, teachers, peers and religious leaders?  If you will permit me a little self-promotion, we’re already doing it.  Well, we were.  While at Public Safety Canada we rolled out a highly successful outreach programme where these signs were provided to communities.  And some police forces are also heavily engaged with communities.  While I understand the lack of will in communities to act on concerns (fear of stigma, fear of arrest, fear of ostracisation…) there is no excuse for a lack of knowledge.

Fortunately (another shameless plug), these signs are discussed in great detail in my forthcoming book “The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield – coming out in a little over a month’s time).  We need to promote this knowledge in the hope that fewer people will successfully disappear to live, fight and possibly die in Syria, leaving broken families and communities behind.

The Harper government may not see the value in countering the radicalisation of Canadian Muslims, but many Canadians do.  Let’s hope for more initiatives at the grassroots level to face down this threat.

The signs are there – let’s do something about it.

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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