Years ago when I was still with CSIS I was part of the debriefing of a source we were running on our counter terrorism investigations. During our chat he said something that struck me as really profound. We were talking about the radicalisation process and he noted, based on what he had observed, that the best catalysts for those thinking of joining a terrorist group or engaging in violent extremism were those who had ‘been there, done that’: i.e. other extremists.
The analogy he used at that time was that people who had street cred in violent extremist circles were like flowers and those interested in a similar experience were like bees, hanging around, landing and picking up ideas (just like bees pick up pollen). His description has remained with me to this very day.
The best catalysts for those thinking engaging in violent extremism were those who had ‘been there, done that’: i.e. other extremists.
Despite the continuing myth of the ‘lone wolf terrorist’, the path to radicalisation does not happen in a vacuum. It requires like-minded people to channel one’s desires into a useful direction. Those who share similar views can be found anywhere: family, friends, religious leaders, online… The role they play is central – a person may eventually elect to act alone (what we more accurately call ‘lone actors’) but s/he did not get radicalised on his/her own.
So if the real McCoy is an essential piece of the radicalisation puzzle does the opposite also apply? What I mean is: can we use a person who has direct experience in terrorism and who has decided to leave it behind to help get those not quite at that point to change their minds? This is an interesting idea and one that has actually been formalised within the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network where ‘formers’ and the victims of terrorist acts come together to try to prevent future events of violent extremism. In truth, I like the idea although I do have reservations as I shall discuss below.
This issue came to the fore for me today when I read that two young Montrealers acquitted of trying to leave Canada to join a terrorist group (I am not sure that was the correct verdict by the way – the Crown is going to appeal I think) have been engaged by the renowned Montreal-based Centre pour la Prévention de la Radicalisation Menant à la Violence (CPRMV) to act as consultants. In keeping with what my source told me, what better way to urge others not to make the same mistake? For the record, I am a fan of the Centre and always make time to see them when I am in Montreal.
Nevertheless, is there a downside to all this? Absolutely. The challenge lies in differentiating between true deradicalisation and disengagement (the two are not the same: the latter is much easier to establish and monitor than the former).
Is there a downside to all this? Absolutely!
If someone who has disengaged from violent extremism – because s/he believes that his/her movements are being investigated – but who still holds onto the very ideas that led them to terrorism in the first place now has access to vulnerable or interested individuals they can act like the flowers I alluded to above. This would not be good.
Best case, worst case
I assume that the deployment of these two young people will be closely evaluated and controlled by the Centre. In the best case scenario they can use their earlier bone-headed decisions to convince others not to follow in their footsteps. More neutrally, their interventions may be all for nought.
The worst outcome would occur if they were able to coach others on how to avoid the attention of security intelligence and law enforcement agencies in order to leave the country or plan something here. I happen to think that this last possibility is highly unlikely, but the chances are not zero. Unfortunately, in the public’s eye organisations such as the CPRMV are only as good as their most recent failure (just as CSIS and the RCMP are).
We will continue to struggle with what to do about radicalisation to violence. Some early efforts and interventions will be successful and on other occasions our protectors (CSIS, RCMP) will have to get involved and people who pose threats to Canadian society will have to be arrested, tried and incarcerated. There is no magic bullet to any of this. I wish this CPRMV initiative well and sincerely hope I will not have to write a piece in the months to come on how it all went not according to plan.
Can we use a person who has direct experience in terrorism and has decided to leave it behind to help get those to change their minds?
President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. email@example.com