How does someone go from being a down-and-out former rock guitarist to an alleged ambitious terrorist? What inspires a former convenience store worker in her 20s to allegedly want to explode bombs that could kill and maim innocent children?
Most of us can't fathom how John Nuttall and Amanda Korody – accused of plotting to explode pressure cookers full of rusty nails at a Canada Day celebration on the lawns of the B.C. legislature – could arrive at such a point. In announcing their arrest, police said the two were "self-radicalized" and inspired by al-Qaeda, but provided few clues as to why they would have wanted to be associated with such evil.
We know that the alleged would-be bombers began attending a mosque a few years ago and reportedly started playing religious lectures at a high volume on their television. Mr. Nuttall was apparently upset about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan and thought our soldiers shouldn't be on Muslim soil. According to friends, Ms. Korody was a mostly quiet devotee of her partner.
Terrorism motivated by the actions of al-Qaeda is an emerging concern among law-enforcement officials around the world.
"With a little encouragement, individuals who are predisposed to accept al-Qaeda's vision of international relations create small networks, near-autonomously, and self-finance and independently prepare acts of violence," according to two academics who have extensively researched the subject.
Alex Wilner, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Claire-Jehanne Dubouloz, of the University of Ottawa, wrote in the 2009 paper Homegrown Terrorism And Transformative Learning: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Radicalization that while the passageways to homegrown extremism are varied, three factors are often at the root.
First, the individuals involved often feel estranged from their broader society. Societal rejection often prompts them to gravitate to groups or philosophies that align with, or feed, their negative thinking toward others.
"As a result," the paper says, "some radicalized individuals distance themselves politically, socially and even ideologically from the broader community, eventually rejecting the national identity shared by their fellow citizens, along with the collective's underlining political ideology, historical narrative and related value-systems."
Second, homegrown jihadis frequently share a sudden interest in religion, often Islam, during the period of their radicalization. The Internet has made extremist interpretations and beliefs more accessible and made it easy for terrorist organizations to spread their message. "Increasingly, radicalization is occurring well outside the mosque."
The third element is rejection of the foreign policy of the country in which a homegrown extremist lives.
"Alienation can create feelings of anxiety and fear while foreign policy can produce anger and despair," the paper says. "Both can lead to a process of critical reflection that involves a personal reassessment of one's life, future ambitions, current social position, inter-personal relations and so on."
On the surface, Mr. Nuttall and Ms. Korody seem to share some of these traits: the estrangement from broader society; a sudden and deepening religious identity; anger over foreign policy. Still, it is a long road from feeling mad and isolated to plotting to detonate bombs. Even if the two are found guilty of the alleged crimes, we may never truly understand what led to such a dramatic and baffling transformation.
What we do know is that violent extremists, and more regularly homegrown jihadi terrorists, seem to be a new fact of life. What ultimately drives them is the greatest challenge facing counterterrorism officials. There's no one development program for wannabe bombers, no consistent profile. There can be many pathways leading to the same destructive place.
While police foiled this alleged terrorist attempt and have done a commendable job of thwarting others, they can't be everywhere. Those closest to the people undergoing the radicalization are usually the first to notice bizarre and troubling changes in behaviour. They are best positioned to notify authorities of highly unusual or suspicious activity.
And in the times we live in, it's our duty and obligation to do just that.