Michael Zekulin is a fellow with the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.
On Jan. 30, the Canadian government unveiled new legislation to combat the growing threat of homegrown terrorism. To be sure, there are criticisms and concerns about the lack of oversight, and there will be legal and constitutional challenges that will arise regarding the use of ambiguous terms such as "terrorist propaganda" and "glorifying terrorism." More importantly, this legislation is incomplete. It only deals with one half of the equation, designed to disrupt and prevent incidents which are imminent.
One question lingers: where are the preventative measures? By this I mean counter-radicalization strategies designed to challenge terrorist propaganda and minimize the number of people who may take up these extremist views. This approach would help make us safer in the long run by preventing the emergence of the next cohort of radicalized Canadians. Paired with legislation such as Bill C-51, we would have the makings of a successful approach to keeping Canadians safe. Counter-radicalization prevents increased numbers of individuals progressing along the conveyor belt of radicalization where thought may turn to action. This would render our legislative initiatives more effective, since there would be fewer threats that our intelligence agencies would have to monitor.
There is, however, an unknown in this two-part strategy that revolves around the counter-narratives we are aiming at potential extremists. We must ask who should take the lead in crafting and disseminating them. Should government take the lead in challenging extremist ideology? Many of our allies including France and the United States have taken this approach and have already produced government videos targeting jihadist propaganda. My first impression is that these videos are well crafted, sophisticated and carry a simple and straightforward message. On the surface they seem to set the standard we should want to replicate. The problem, however, is not the message per se rather, it is the messenger. We must accept the fact that government may not be the ideal actor to spearhead this initiative.
When dealing with extremists, we have to take into account that they are often motivated by a perception of reality that differs from most people's. Part of the message being spread by groups such as Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) is that our governments are the problem, content to mislead and lie about these groups and their goals. For those who may be at the beginning of the radicalization process, government has very little credibility. In fact, government messaging on this issue may be counterproductive and might accelerate or begin to harden extremist ideas.
Remember, while one of our concerns about radicalized Canadians travelling abroad is that they are a potential threat to plot attacks upon their return, a larger concern is their impact on recruiting additional persons and setting them on the path towards radicalization. They are familiar with the community, know the types of individuals they are looking to target and most importantly, their experiences provide an aura of credibility which greatly increases the impact of their words. Government cannot compete with this.
There is a lesson we can learn from this: the solution is to counter this supposed credibility with real credibility and find people who are better suited to speak to the issue. Religious leaders, community leaders and peers are a logical starting point – particularly peers who have been successfully disengaged from earlier radical thoughts or actions.
This is not to say government has no role in this effort; public officials need to provide support and, most importantly, resources. The actual messaging, however, needs to be developed and spread at the grassroots level, by those who interact with susceptible individuals on a day-to-day basis.
Our effort to counter jihadist propaganda – be it from specific groups such as Islamic State or the overall global jihadist narrative – requires a sustained, multifaceted strategy where multiple stakeholders have a role to play. Government's role in this case is assisting those who have the potential to make a real impact. Government anti-terror legislation is one part of the solution, but government alone cannot immunize Canadian society from viral jihadism.