The road to radicalization has many forks – it is a process both "idiosyncratic" and "individual," as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has noted. So when the Mounties claimed last week that two people accused of taking part in a foiled B.C. bomb plot were "self-radicalized," it served as a reminder that old-fashioned, community-based policing should still be the best defence against the emerging danger of homegrown extremist violence.
Recent alleged threats to Canadian security are often improbable figures – from Xristos Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, ordinary-seeming high school students turned hostage-takers in Algeria, to John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, apparently drug-addicted rockers and late converts to radical Islam. In this context, the strongest chance at early detection surely lies in the beat-cop tradition – agents in the field who can take a community's pulse and build relationships with those who might raise a red flag.
After the young Tsarnaev brothers carried out horrific attacks in Boston last April, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reiterated its commitment to community policing that prepares civic and religious leaders to help spot warning signs.
And what is "self-radicalization," anyway? Perhaps nothing more than amateurish participation in the same shifting social networks that incite violence worldwide. Many people dabble in radical ideas, but anti-terror experts stress that the few who turn violent almost always get a personal nudge from someone, if increasingly in the form of online chat-room encouragement rather than a trip abroad for hands-on al-Qaeda training.
There may be a role for more sweeping, birds-eye-style intelligence gathering. Collecting communications "metadata" to sift and sort with algorithms might turn up patterns of activity that would otherwise go unnoticed. But such surveillance should be deployed only after full parliamentary debate, and then with the utmost restraint and more rigorous parliamentary oversight than now exists.
The human, community-based approach also has its own ethical and privacy issues. Turning ordinary citizens into watchmen can lead to unpleasant finger-pointing, sowing needless suspicions among neighbours. And when the RCMP reveals that it had the bombs in the alleged B.C. plot "completely under our control," it is reasonable to ask whether savvy policing might have crossed a line into entrapment.
Canadians can take comfort in our successes so far at thwarting homegrown terror. But just as face-to-face contact is usually key to radicalization, it bears repeating that it is equally crucial in defusing the radicalized before their ideas turn into actions.