Michael Zekulin teaches political science at the University of Calgary. His research focuses on terrorism and radicalization.
Last week, Canadians were belatedly introduced to yet another citizen killed fighting in a jihadist conflict overseas – Calgarian Salman Ashrafi, who dispatched himself as a suicide bomber for a group known as ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) in November, 2013. While specifics such as names, hometowns and conflict zones change, the broader narrative has become one all too familiar to Canadians.
Mr. Ashrafi joins a growing list of individuals, including Damian Claremont (Calgary), André Poulin (Timmins, Ont.), Ali Dirie (from the “Toronto 18” plot) and Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej (London, Ont.), who have been identified as participants in jihadist struggles in places such as Iraq, Syria and Algeria over the past two years. Another individual, Mohamed Hersi, was recently convicted of attempting to participate in a terrorist activity. The Crown told jurors that Mr. Hersi, detained at Toronto Pearson International Airport in 2011, was on his way to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
Individuals who are radicalized and becoming foreign fighters are a growing problem. If we, or more importantly our policy-makers, are not yet alarmed we should be.
Canada is behind the curve on both addressing radicalization and tracking such individuals travelling abroad. Beyond that, while the link between radicalization and foreign travel to fight is evident, there is actually a deeper and circular relationship that highlights why Canada needs to intensify its efforts. Our country lags behind our peers in three important areas.
The first and most obvious concern is identifying and discouraging efforts to radicalize our citizens. For the past several years, the U.S., Britain, Australia and Scandinavian countries have been extremely proactive in identifying and removing, or detaining and prosecuting individuals accused of radicalizing or inciting violence and hatred in their communities. The same cannot be said for Canada.
Second, Canada has not yet implemented a national counter-radicalization strategy. Although the RCMP has announced it will unveil one shortly, other states have had such programs for years. Britain introduced Prevent in 2003 and re-evaluated it in 2011; the U.S. introduced “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” in 2011. The Netherlands’ “Polarization and Radicalization Action Plan,” was created in 2007 and Australia created a federal counter-radicalization plan in 2010.
Third, questions remain regarding our ability to identify and track radicalized individuals who are abroad. With the exception of Mr. Hersi, other individuals’ involvement was only identified after the fact. In many cases, it remains unclear who, if anyone, was aware of their activities.
Again, compared with our peers, Canadian numbers appear much lower: While Canadian reports estimate “dozens” of Canadians potentially pursuing jihad abroad, reports from other countries paint a more sobering picture. Britain, Australia and Scandinavian countries estimate “hundreds” of their citizens may be engaging in foreign jihad. Evidence from other countries suggests that Canada is probably substantially underestimating.
Most people understand the link between radicalization and individuals travelling abroad to fight in foreign jihadist-inspired conflicts. In many cases, those being radicalized are simultaneously being “recruited.”
What might be the consequences of our continued indifference?
Inaction emboldens those seeking to radicalize our citizens to continue operating with impunity. The pipelines shipping our citizens to these jihadi hot spots become increasingly entrenched and more difficult to disrupt.
Another real possibility is the return of these citizens to Canada after their participation in foreign conflicts. They come back with a “postsecondary” degree in extremism, trained by hard-core foreign jihadists in real battlefield situations, posing a real terrorism threat.
There is a circularity to that threat: Radicalization leads to individuals travelling abroad, which then leads to … radicalization? Simply put, our inaction is potentially creating conditions for an even more potent and dangerous form of radicalization and recruitment than we are currently experiencing.
We will no longer simply need to be concerned about outsiders radicalizing and recruiting Canadians to go abroad and fight. Instead, the recruiters would be Canadians who have fought abroad: Credibility and a powerful narrative, their own experiences, would be shared with a much larger pool of friends, acquaintances and community members than an outside recruiter could ever hope to reach. We are already starting to see this unfold as individuals from Western states who have gone abroad to fight are increasingly using social media to relay their experiences to others.
It is clear Canada has a growing problem with radicalization. Failure to address this issue is no longer an option. Indeed, it’s time for Canada to get ahead of the curve.