Another Canadian has been arrested on a terrorism peace bond. Mohammed El Shaer, a 28-year old resident of Windsor, Ontario and a business graduate, had served time for falsifying information on a Citizenship and Immigration form that he filled out while in Turkey but was released only to be re-held on terrorism allegations. It is important to point out that Mr. El Shaer has not been charged with terrorism and that nothing to date has been proven. He certainly has engaged in, shall we say “interesting” travel to the Middle East but there could be plausible explanations for this. It is nevertheless odd to hear his lawyer say that no current travel restrictions are necessary for his client in light of his track record.
What I want to focus on is the night I met Mr. El Shaer. A few years back I had traveled to Windsor to participate in a session on violent radicalisation organised by, and at the invitation of, local Muslim youth. I was accompanied by officials from Public Safety Canada’s Citizen Engagement branch and an RCMP outreach officer. My role was to talk about my research on radicalisation and what signs communities could detect to identify individuals heading down the path to violent extremism.
As soon as I had finished my talk, a young man stood up and took me to task. He accused me of Islamophobia and exaggerating the threat to Canada from terrorism. He added that no one in Windsor would share the ideology I had just demonstrated and that he was insulted that a government of Canada delegation would come to his city to talk about a non-existent problem. And he wouldn’t shut up.
That man was Mohammed El Shaer (I only found out who he was later). His remarks led to an argument with the others in attendance, none of whom appreciated his outburst or the rudeness with which he had greeted their guests. At one point the scene almost led to fisticuffs. One member of the community apologised to me privately saying “he’s our local extremist”: as a seasoned intelligence analyst specialising in homegrown radicalisation I had noticed that.
I have already noted that the government has not proven that Mr. El Shaer travelled to the Middle East for terrorist purposes, although it is noteworthy that he has been placed on a terrorism peace bond (where there is smoke there is fire?). Regardless, there are two important issues related to the events of that evening in Windsor that do speak to fascinating characteristics of radicalisation and violent extremism.
The first is the audacity and brashness with which radicalised people act in a public forum. There is a myth out there that the greatest threat to our security comes from so-called “sleeper cells”. In reality, the vast majority of those who radicalise to violence betray their ideology openly (and those who go on to commit terrorist acts actually tell people in their ambit about their plans in what is called “leakage”). It is as if the commitment to an ideology is so thorough that the radicals cannot help but share it with everyone. In addition, these individuals do not care about being detected by law enforcement (recall that an RCMP officer was in attendance that evening). This may sound counter-intuitive: shouldn’t those engaged in activity that may be seen as criminal opt to hide their ideas? On the contrary, this bizarre behaviour happens more often that not whether it is in a mosque, a classroom or any other venue. The reasons why they are so brazen are not well understood: it may come down to a belief that their path is the true one and that whether or not they succeed is in the hands of another (we have actually seen foreign fighters tweet their conviction that “Allah blinded” authorities to their plans, allowing them to get to Iraq or Syria to join Islamic State).
Secondly, violent radicals also “out” themselves in order to identify others for recruitment potential. And that is exactly what happened in Windsor that night. Despite massive opposition to what he was saying and doing (kudos to the community for standing up to him), I noticed two young men who seemed enthralled by his words. I have no idea what eventually happened to these two – in fact I spent the better part of an hour trying to convince one that choosing Mr. El Shaer’s path was not a wise move – but it would not be hard to imagine them getting hooked.
In my experience, Mr. El Shaer’s performance is typical. I do not know what he had done before his performance that night, but I feel confident labeling him an Islamist extremist based on that performance. Luckily – for communities as well as for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies – these guys conveniently help us identify them through their words and behaviours. Let’s hope that continues.