Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with The NATO Council of Canada, a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association and a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis.
Last Friday, the Islamic State (IS) released its latest video as part of a continuing English-language campaign meant to increase recruitment from the West.
The high-quality and savvy video entitled “Al-Ghuraba: The Chosen Few” centers on a Canadian fighter killed last August during the final assault on an air base in Syria. The featured combatant, Abu Muslim al-Kanadi (Abu Muslim the Canadian) was identified last year after he was featured in a Channel 4 documentary on British foreign fighters.
Abu Muslim, whose real name was Andre Poulin, came from Timmins, Ont., and was a convert to Islam with a troubled past that included multiple brushes with law enforcement. Though, in the IS propaganda video there is passing mention of his incarceration and he is instead portrayed as a heroic warrior and a pious Muslim, “a brother with excellent character: truthfulness, dedication, selflessness and steadfastness.” Mr. Poulin states in the video that he left the “Land of Disbelievers” for the honourable and obligatory duty of fighting holy war in the name of Islam. In doing so, he became “one of the few, of the few, of the few,” turning himself from an average Muslim living in a society at war with Islam to a holy warrior fighting to establish a state built on its tenants. This narrative is reinforced by the last five minutes of the video, which transitions from Mr. Poulin’s address to Muslims in the West to footage of the events leading up to and including his death and finally, as a martyr, his lifeless body being prepared for burial.
The choice of a Canadian for the first video in what is rumoured to be a new series by the IS is telling. Having established what the group believes to be a Caliphate, it is looking to consolidate its state – for which it needs fighters, engineers, professionals and, as Mr. Poulin mentions, money. In doing so, it looks to Western recruits, 2,800 plus of which are or have already fought and in some cases died in Syria, the majority for the IS. Mr. Poulin spoke English, but more importantly came from a country respected both for its friendliness and its high standard of living, making the message clear: If Mr. Poulin could leave his comfortable life for his religious calling, other Muslims from Western countries can too. Better to die in the service of Islam, so the argument goes, than to live under the rule of a secular and anti-Muslim government.
Using a Canadian to spearhead a new round of propaganda is also interesting from another perspective; the estimated number of Canadians fighting abroad. The director of CSIS, Michel Coulombe, told the Senate National Security and Defence Committee in February that 130 Canadians had gone overseas to fight in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa; a number which also included 30 individuals who are, or have fought, in Syria. Even more alarming, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) estimated at the end of last year that up to 100 Canadians may have been involved in the conflict in Syria. To compare, the same ICSR report found that there were only about 60 Americans in Syria at that time. It seems that, in the eyes of the IS, Canadians have played an important role on the battlefield and as tools of a sophisticated propaganda machine.
The danger posed by these fighters is real; according to one study, one-in-nine returned foreign fighters from 1990 to 2010 were involved in domestic plots. These plots tended to be more effective and lethal, thanks both to the skills learned and the indoctrinated zeal provided at radical training camps. The jihadi landscape has also changed since 2010 – particularly with the development of the extremely radical IS – a reality that points to a likely increase in this statistic. The Canadian government, has, from a legal perspective, taken the necessary steps to address this issue in an effort to dissuade individuals from joining these conflicts. These legal restrictions, however, do not address the underlying socio-economic issues related to this phenomenon, the savvy narrative created by IS to lure young men, or the problem of what to do once these individuals return home. The solutions to these issues are varied, but all include the input and collaboration between Canada’s Muslim community and their leaders, private industry and government institutions beyond the narrow law enforcement focuses of CSIS and the RCMP.
Those at risk of joining these groups or being influenced to carry out plots at home must be convinced of their place in Canadian society and the error of those who have already gone to fight overseas. In short, a new narrative must be created using a comprehensive approach, one which competes with the flashy propaganda machine of the IS and other terrorist groups.