by Alex Wilner
In September, a young Torontonian became the first Canadian to be found guilty of participating in homegrown terrorism. Ten of his suspected co-conspirators await prosecution. Last month, news broke that a Quebec man had posted messages on a terrorist-friendly forum calling on al-Qaeda to attack Canadians. “It’s Canada’s turn” he urged his audience. Last week, a separate trial involving Canadian-born Momin Khawaja wrapped up. Arrested in 2004, Mr. Khawaja was found guilty of assisting a British terrorist cell. If this weren’t bad enough, Canadian officials note that another seven terrorist plots – organized in Canada by Canadians – are under investigation.
Considering these developments, we might well ask ourselves: Why are Canadians supporting terrorism?
At the root of the problem is the fact that global terrorism has evolved. The threat now challenging Canada is autonomous, local and self-generated. This is the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. And it’s spreading. Combatting it will require an innovative and multifaceted approach. Four strategies stand out:
First, the Canadian government requires a robust understanding of the pathways that lead ordinary Canadians to embrace and organize violence against fellow nationals. The radicalization process, as it pertains to Canada in particular, must be addressed. Individuals who contemplate killing their neighbours in acts of mass terrorism do so because their beliefs dictate that murder is feasible and just. Terrorists are not simply homicidal – ideological sentiment informs behaviour.
Tackling homegrown terrorism will require that Ottawa understand where these ideologies stem from, how they are disseminated, and how they inform radicalization processes. With this knowledge in hand, officials will be able to gauge what particular segments of Canadian society are susceptible to radicalization and what policies might reverse emerging trends.
Second, Canada should more readily monitor local elements that foster ideologies condoning terrorism. While self-radicalization is possible, an embrace of terrorism is often fortified by guidance from above. Hatred can be taught, directed and engendered. Firebrand preachers can lecture on radical thought, spread the indoctrination of violent ideas, and “groom” individuals into would-be terrorists.
These legitimizers must be stopped. Combatting homegrown terrorism requires keeping track of individuals and institutions that represent gateways to radical milieus and deterring them from doing so. It is time that Canadians held a national debate on the relationships among free speech, incitement and terrorism. Doing so now lays the groundwork for legislative evolution, if and when it is needed.
Third, Ottawa should use the Internet not only to uncover and impede terrorist infrastructure and planning in Canada but also to disseminate the rationales that underpin Canada’s defence and foreign policy. When terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah run websites as sophisticated as those constructed by government agencies, it is clear that a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians is at stake. Spreading hatred and sowing violence has never been so easy.
But the street runs both ways: Just as jihadists use the Internet as a virtual call to arms, so, too, can governments, NGOs and religious institutions use it to combat terrorism. Government agencies can use the Web to disseminate information that contradicts the radicals’ message. Winning the war of ideas will require a redoubling of efforts in the realm of public diplomacy that not only rebuffs the legitimizers of terrorism but also strengthens opposing viewpoints.
Finally, expeditiously dismantling terrorist plots once they are uncovered will require a robust intelligence-gathering and policing capability and intricate interagency co-operation. To that end, Canadian police forces should be given a greater role in combatting terrorism. Training even a fraction of the more than 60,000 police officers and 25,000 RCMP personnel who protect our communities in the basics of counterterrorism would pay security dividends.
The challenge posed by homegrown terrorism is becoming frighteningly evident. When Canadian citizens champion, support and organize acts of terrorism against fellow Canadians, it is clear that existing security strategies will have to be refined.
Alex Wilner is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich and research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax.