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Ottawa pledges deradicalization hire despite skepticism at anti-terror effectiveness

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale speaks in Ottawa on Aug. 17, 2016.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Following the fatal police shooting of would-be suicide bomber Aaron Driver, Canada's Public Safety Minister says the Liberals will "up our game" in the fight against terrorism by imminently hiring a deradicalization adviser.

"What the incident in Strathroy demonstrates is that this is important," Ralph Goodale told reporters on Wednesday. He said the new adviser will be hired within weeks and could succeed in counter-terrorism challenges where police and intelligence services are falling short.

Related: Family with ties to Aaron Driver forced to clarify their relationship

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Mr. Driver, 24, from Strathroy, Ont., was killed last week. Federal authorities had red-flagged him as an aspiring terrorist, but nothing could make him reconsider his sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. Despite a degree of monitoring, he had managed to put together an improvised bomb and a video in which he promised to shed Canadian blood for the terror group.

The creation of a deradicalization adviser, who will run a $10-million-a-year office, fulfills a 2015 campaign promise by the Liberals. At the time, the party criticized the then-Conservative government for its law-and-order approach to fighting terrorism.

Details are under wraps, but observers are keen to see how the approach will take shape, especially since the global track record of such initiatives is mixed. "There are all kinds of these programs all over the world. Everyone's got one," said Phil Gurski, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. And yet, he added, no one has really figured out the best approach.

CSIS recently canvassed outside experts for feedback on which governments' deradicalization – or "countering violent extremism" (CVE) – programs are working best. Many replied that none are known to be working particularly well.

"Some expressed skepticism as to the relevance of CVE initiatives, highlighting the lack of supporting empirical evidence thus far to measure their effectiveness," says a CSIS discussion paper recently published online. Other experts told CSIS such programs are only valuable "provided that their implementation is not led by governments … [because] governments are not credible messengers."

Speaking to reporters after a speech to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police on Wednesday, Mr. Goodale said he is mulling over who among two or three short-listed candidates will lead the government's newest office. "We will be making the selection shortly," he said. "That person will be directing a very important effort to up our game in Canada in terms of recognizing and understanding the process of radicalization."

The minister said the new adviser will focus on how to nip extremism in the bud, as well as on how to unlock the psyches of hardened extremists. Mr. Driver was for years an active cheerleader of the Islamic State on Twitter. Last year, police compelled him to appear in court to swear a specialized peace bond that exists for terrorism suspects.

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A judge extracted a promise from Mr. Driver that if he wanted to stay out of jail, he would keep away from weapons and Internet propaganda, and check in with police every two weeks. Yet the threat posed by Mr. Driver was never adequately contained because he never altered his beliefs.

Mr. Goodale said that down the road, he is open to tinkering with peace-bond laws to better require "an individual to engage with counter-radicalization professionals" – but he stressed that no peace bond will ever be a "panacea" in itself.

The Conservatives' public safety critic, Erin O'Toole, said he will be watching to see how the new office takes shape.

"Will this co-ordinator be able to cure people or bring them back from the brink?" he asked. He said the Liberals should also consider that police may still need more powers. "Let's not kid ourselves if law enforcement agencies need some tools to keep on top of this."

Over the years, the federal government has tried to come up with ways to challenge radicalization. For example, the RCMP and the Department of Public Safety have spent years trying to devise their own CVE initiatives but have had little to say about their successes or failures.

"I know the people who have been involved in it … but I haven't seen any results," said Mr. Gurski, the former CSIS analyst.

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"Let's not be Pollyannas about this – this stuff is hard," he added. But "at the end of the day, doing something is better than doing nothing. Because if you do nothing, you end up with Aaron Driver."

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