Finger guns and cucumber bombs: the challenges of CVE

OK, OK, enough with the stories of ridiculous over-exaggeration to what kids say and draw.  We can all gasp with horror over the child who was referred to a UK counter-radicalisation programme for drawing a picture of his father slicing a cucumber but was misinterpreted to mean a “cooker bomb” and the one where a boy in the UK caused a furour when he said he lived in a “terraced” house .  These incidents remind me of the suspensions of children in the US, one  for chewing a Pop-Tart in the shape of a firearm and the time another was turfed for making a “finger gun”, all in the name of zero tolerance and school safety.

Surely, people, there has to be a degree of judgment and common sense, doesn’t there?  Whatever happened to thought and analysis?  Can’t people in authority consider each case on its own merits, ask a few simple questions and realise when certain things are not what they appear at first blush?  Have we as a society become so fearful and paranoid (thanks Donald Trump!) that we forget how to be reasonable?  In our collective effort to stop the next Columbine or 9/11 have we lost our ability to discern real threats from misunderstandings?

I suppose some will chalk these incidents up to “better safe than sorry” (I bet staff are mandated to report anything remotely suspicious to those higher up, and that is undoubtedly part of the problem).  Maybe, but I think something more potentially dangerous is happening here.  Something along the lines of the boy who cried wolf.  If we are inundated with stupid over-reactions to non-threats we run the risk of under-reaction to real ones.

And yet more worrisome to my mind is that these obviously ridiculous administrative decisions undermine the public’s confidence in the value and need for these programmes, some of which have already been accused of “profiling”.  These initiatives serve as early warning indicators for problems that, if left unchecked, can morph into significant violence.  More importantly, they act in what is called “pre-criminal” space and their intent is to identify issues that may (not necessarily will) be resolved before the child gets into trouble with the law.  As such, they form part of what has been termed “early intervention”

Research has shown that there are clear signs of violent extremism and radicalisation and that these signs are both behavioural and ideological.  The beauty of these indicators is that they tend to be overt and observable and can be conveyed to people on the front lines (teachers, child care workers, school psychologists, religious leaders, etc.) simply and effectively.  Strategies can then be developed on the protocols to follow when individuals evince these signs.

What are the signs?  The following non-exhaustive list for Islamist extremism is a start (for much more detail go to my book The Threat from Within):

  •  Sudden increase in intolerant religiosity
  •  Rejection of different interpretations of Islam
  •  Rejection of non-Muslims
  •  Rejection of Western ways (democracy, rule of law, etc.)
  •  Rejection of Western policies (domestic, military,  foreign, social, etc.)
  •  Association with like-minded radicalised people
  •  Obsession with violent jihadi sites
  •  Desire to travel to conflict zones and join terrorist groups
  •  Obsession with violent jihad
  •  Obsession with martyrdom
  •  Obsession with end of time

I am confident of this list but it has to be emphasised that these signs are not guarantees that the person demonstrating them is a terrorist or a budding violent extremist. They should lead those in positions to observe them to ask questions and seek the reasons why that individual is expressing him- or herself in that way.  Applied properly, they can identify those who are heading down the path of violent radicalisation and, it is hoped, do so early enough to improve the chances of diversion.

There is no question that we have a disturbing number of violent radicals in our societies, people that will move on to mass shootings or terrorism.  We have a vested interest in detecting these people before they act in order to save lives.  And we have a duty to help those plagued by the demons of violence, either to get them help or to throw them in prison where they cannot harm others.

Let us think carefully about how we do this.  We need to stop making inane decisions about Pop-Tart guns and cucumber bombs and identify those occasions where the threat is real.  Despite criticism, these programmes are necessary.  We do not have to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we do need to make sure the baby is saying and doing things that point to trouble.

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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