The need for a counter radicalisation coordinator in Canada

One of the more interesting promises made by the Canadian Liberal government has been the announcement of the creation of a national Office of Counter Radicalisation to be housed within the Department of Public Safety.  Minister Ralph Goodale made reference to this project again yesterday, noting that the office will work with communities and security agencies to “turn young people away from extremism”.  I was fascinated to see that the plan is to use intelligence from within the 5-eyes community as well as the latest radicalisation research to get this right (more on that later).

Kudos to the government for taking the initiative.  I worked on this file while at Public Safety before I retired and it should be acknowledged that a lot of good work was done before it became clear that the previous government had no interest in CVE (countering violent extremism), preferring to focus on investigation and incarceration (NB these two measures are definitely necessary in some cases but are not enough to solve the problem).

Tied to this announcement is a policy brief written by three members of TSAS – the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society – Sara Thompson of Ryerson, Dan Hiebert of UBC and former CSIS official Larry Brooks (full disclosure: I am friends with all 3).  You can find the whole paper here, but I wish to highlight a few items.

The authors note that current efforts are fragmented and there is no central overview of what is being done.  Too true.  This is not to dismiss some of the great work being done but without a comprehensive sense of what is happening nationally it is hard to make good policy.  They also concur that way too much emphasis has been devoted to the “hard approach”: again it is a necessary part but should not and cannot be the end game in all instances.  In addition, they call for robust programme evaluation – this has been the Achilles heel of a lot of CVE work.  It is not that we are doing bad things but we really have no idea whether what we are doing is at all effective.

An important recommendation was the need for what they call greater “cross-pollination” among researchers, practitioners and policy officials.  I can attest to that gap. In my 32-year career in intelligence and especially while I was at CSIS I was fortunate to be in regular contact with academics, but I was a bit of an anomaly.  I was also able to translate my experiences into a book that I hope has made a contribution to our collective knowledge of the challenges we face.  So yes, we should do more but we have to acknowledge that there will be obstacles.  That is why I was intrigued to hear the Minister’s reference to using intelligence (i.e. classified information) to help drive our counter radicalisation efforts.  I do have some ideas on how to do this, but in any event this will have to be given careful thought.

The suggestion that we could use multi-layered and multi-representational committees and input is a no-brainer and I think we have already done that on multiple occasions, as is the need for sustained funding, not piecemeal post facto money distributed in a panic after an incident.  There is no question that CVE is a lot less expensive than investigation and arrest, but it does incur certain costs.

Here is where I will depart company with the authors, and maybe make an enemy or two.  I do not support the request for more evidence-based research and a fully renewed Kanishka II.  I am not arguing for a complete lack of funds but I do not think that the writers’ justification for funds is 100% supportable, for two reasons.  Firstly there is enough research and data available on the roots/factors/drivers of violent radicalisation out there already and it is highly unlikely that more work will advance our well-grounded knowledge in ways that will give us a good return on future investment.  Secondly there are many people, including me, who do not believe that the first Kanishka round of funding ($10 million over 5 years) provided enough meaningful, policy-relevant material or told us things we did not already know (I am speaking here from the viewpoint of a former practitioner who spent more than a decade studying violent radicalisation in Canada).  It’s not that the research was of no use but it was not innovative enough to warrant another bout of full funding.  Perhaps we can identify the work that was of significant value and move forward with that along a smaller funding model or choose a few new well-advanced ideas on gaps that we all recognise.

All in all the authors present a compelling case for moving forward in a big way and soon on CVE.  Despite the lack of enthusiasm, the previous government did create some intitiatives that were the envy of our allies.  We need to buld on this and do more.  We are good at this in Canada and can get even better.  It is time we made a commitment, one that will be financed and supported, that will last years and have a major impact on our efforts to identify and help those who go down the pathways to violence.

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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