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opinion

Jessica Davis is the president of Insight Threat Intelligence and the author of Illicit Money: Financing Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century.

For the first time, a Canadian has been sentenced to life in prison for a white nationalist terrorist attack. Earlier this month, Nathaniel Veltman was sentenced to five life sentences after having been found guilty in November on four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. Mr. Veltman killed four members of a Muslim family, and injured another, in what we now know was a terrorist attack motivated by white nationalism in London, Ont., in 2021.

White nationalism is part of the ideologically motivated, violent extremist landscape. White nationalists want to create a white ethno-state; the majority of the group are also white supremacists who want strict controls on non-white immigration to majority-white countries, and sometimes go so far as to support ethnic cleansing or genocide. In the London case, the killer took action on these ideas and tried to rid Canada of people he identified as minorities – in this case, specifically, Muslims.

Ideologically motivated violent extremism – a category of extremism that includes incel-motivated violence, white supremacist and white nationalist violence, and anti-authority violence – is a growing concern for many Western countries, Canada included. In fact, this form of extremist violence has killed more people in Canada than any other type of political, ideological, or religiously motivated violence, with the exception of the Air India attack in 1985.

The growth of this form of violent extremism is often attributed to the availability of extremist content online, ranging from manifestos to the live-streaming of attacks. And while the availability of this content is concerning, this attribution misplaces cause and effect. The ideas are not driving the hate: instead, the hate and fear felt by these extremists is finding an outlet in these ideas. Just as Islamic State propaganda landed with young, socially isolated and vulnerable Muslims and recent converts to Islam in the 2010s, white nationalist propaganda is landing with socially isolated and vulnerable men and women in the 2020s.

In both cases, the first reaction of many terrorism prevention professionals has been to advocate for content restrictions. While there is certainly content that should be restricted (manifestos and live-streams of incidents are two clear-cut cases), restricting other types of extremist content quickly becomes difficult. The internet is decentralized, and so are the laws that govern content restrictions. Recent experience has demonstrated that this is not a practical solution.

Nor does restricting the content remove the underlying conditions for radicalization and mobilization (how people act on their extremist ideas). Even more confounding, millions of people consume extremist content online, and tens of thousands (and probably many more) are white nationalists. But only a very small fraction of these individuals will go on to commit acts of violence. The challenge lies in figuring out who will move from ideas to action.

One solution is to significantly expand law enforcement and security-service surveillance of individuals consuming white nationalist (and other IMVE) content and try to pro-actively identify people mobilizing to violence. While possible, this would require a significant increase in national security budgets in Canada and would greatly enhance the number of people under surveillance, infringing on their civil liberties. It also would not solve a key problem: there is still no good way to predict who will act on their extremist ideas.

This is why the finding of the London attack being motivated by white nationalist extremism is so important for Canadians. We need to understand that this type of ideology can lead to murder and terrorism. People do not tend to radicalize and mobilize in isolation: they usually do that by consuming extremist content, and will often try to find “fellow travellers” with whom they can share their extremist ideas. Even “lone actors” share information about their intentions and plans with people around them, although not always intentionally.

While the finding of terrorism in this case is important from a signalling perspective (helping Canadians understand that terrorism can look like a white man deliberately hitting a Muslim family with his vehicle), it does little to make Canada safer. To do that, law enforcement and security services need to get better at preventing this type of attack, which they can only do with better research into the mobilization process. They also need to be more transparent about why they are not able to detect attackers before they act: the reasons might point to legislative or policy changes that need to be made to make all Canadians safer. Fundamentally, law enforcement and security services need to develop better tools to detect and disrupt ideologically motivated violent extremism before it takes another life in this country. The body count is already too high.

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