Over the past few years we have been informed that a significant number of Canadians – probably close to a 100 according to the latest data (i.e. the CSIS Director) – have decided to travel to Syria/Iraq and join terrorist groups such as Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra. Note I said “decided to travel”: this is not about brainwashing or coercion or any other “victim” phenomenon. These people are making rational decisions and choosing this action. It may be a bad choice, but it is freely made by otherwise “normal” people. Please stop treating them as wayward souls.
Now following some excellent work by National Post reporter Stewart Bell, we have learned that the “emir” of the IS branch in Bangladesh is likely from Windsor, Ontario (I also want to cite the incredible scholarship of Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam in this regard). Tamim Chowdhury is just the latest Canadian to make the trip to the bosom of a terrorist group.
With all these cases dating back several years, we are now in a position to make some generic comments about this phenomenon. What I am about to write may refer for the most part to these current cases but is based on work that I did while with CSIS and which formed the nucleus of my 2015 book The Threat from Within.
First and most importantly, the fact that Mr. Chowdhury is at least the third resident of Windsor to join IS is very significant. The process of violent radicalisation that precedes one’s decision to associate with a terrorist group is an inherently social one. I have no idea whether Mr. Chowdhury knew his fellow Windsorites, Ahmed Waseem and Mohammed Al Shaer, but I would be very surprised if he were not aware of their ideological leanings, if not part of the same bunch that share these ideas. He may even have been inspired to leave Canada because of these two. In any event, his departure is not random and was driven in part by the environment he chose to inhabit.
Secondly, we have seen that those who join IS come from across the socioeconomic spectrum. They are not all “losers”, though some could be seen as such. There are university grads and those in successful jobs as well as a few drifters and hangers-on. We cannot put them all in the same category and our unfortunate tendency to label them as the “disenfranchised/alienated/marginalised” of society is not only categorically wrong and not backed up by any substantive data but leads us to craft approaches to deal with these people that will end up being off the mark and irrelevant.
Thirdly, we have to put what is said about these guys in theatre in perspective. Mr. Chowdhury may be the “emir” of IS in Bangladesh, but what does that even mean? Is he a master planner? Does he have critical terrorism experience? Can he organise others to act? Words are cheap (and we hear the same drivel about the kuffar and killing and “soldiers of Allah” on every occasion). We have seen all too many videos by Canadians (John Maguire, Andre Poulin and Farah Shirdon come to mind) where their claims of greatness and their threats to Canada must be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, they do pose a potential threat to this country and elsewhere and our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies need to keep an eye on them. And yes, they should be charged if they ever make the stupid decision to return to Canada (NB I am very skeptical about all the recent statements by remorseful foreign fighters who want to come home – funny how that is only happening now that IS is under incredible pressure, isn’t it?). But we need to be realistic about this bunch of Canadians: they do not strike me as the “A” team of terrorism. It is obviously in IS’ interests to parade these men online since they represent the true threat from within and serve as excellent propaganda for the group (“See, we can even recruit Canadians!”). Let’s not give IS more credit than it deserves.
IS may be on its last legs, I don’t know (though I have frequently cautioned against declaring any terrorist movement “dead”). And there appears to be a slacking off of Westerners traveling to join up, if my reading of international news is any indication. But it is inevitable that more Canadians will elect to leave us for violent extremist groups in the future. We need to do more to prevent that, using every tool from early intervention and mentoring to investigation and arrest. And when the odd one succeeds in evading detection and ends up with a terrorist group we must refrain from giving him (or her) and his murderous colleagues the oxygen that terrorists crave. We must do due diligence to protect ourselves and ensure that the responsible agencies have the requisite resources, but we cannot allow terrorists the platform to spread their violent bile.