Like most Canadians, I was rather shocked to hear that more Canadians had been arrested on Monday on terrorism charges, seeking to detonate bombs in Victoria during Canada Day celebrations.
In interviews with the media after such events I am commonly asked whether I expect there will be more plots and I point out that the basic conditions prompting such acts persist, so I think there is a good possibility. The global political tensions between some "Islamic states" (e.g., Iran), radical Islamist movements (e.g., the various splinter groups of al Qaeda and other groups such as Hezbollah), and the "Western" powers is still a reality, though more muted these days, and radical terrorist groups remain very active online providing the rationale, encouragement, and some of the means to perpetrate acts of violence in the West.
But I also have in mind the more personal factors that help to determine why specific individuals choose to heed the call to violence and martyrdom, if only in the sense of risking spending the rest of their lives in prison. The two young men from London, Ont., Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas, who apparently died fighting for the terrorist group that seized an Algerian gas plant in January, were part of the growing trend of "homegrown" terrorism. In these cases, like the two arrested in British Columbia this week, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody, the RCMP and other commentators have said the accused were "inspired by the al-Qaeda ideology" but "self-radicalized."
Technically this just means that they are not known to have had any direct contact with an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, either via the Internet or by travelling abroad; but they have read al-Qaeda materials online and probably participated in chat forums where they shared their new concerns and passions with like-minded others.
The term self-radicalization implies, however, more. It suggests that ordinary Canadians became jihadist terrorist all on their own, which is very improbable. The only case on record where it is thought that the individual may have truly self-radicalized is Roshanara Choudhry, who attempted to assassinate British MP Stephen Timms on May 14, 2010. In all other instances, even in the extreme cases of so-called "lone wolf" terrorists, such as Andres Brevik in Norway, or Major Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, there was some prior contact with others that helped to create a profound sense of belonging to a larger community and cause, if only in a somewhat imaginary way.
In every case we are dealing with issues that are matters of degree – and in two regards: First, the question of how much contact and of what type was involved; and, second, the question of whether we are dealing with someone who is mentally maladjusted in some way. Studies of individuals converting to unconventional and extreme religious beliefs suggest that contact online or by other media (e.g., radio or television) must be followed by more personal forms of interaction, and usually face-to-face meetings, for a real commitment or conversion to occur.
These findings were replicated in the Quillam Foundation's excellent investigation of the jihadi radical use of internet chat forums. Online contacts need to be complemented by interactions offline. Of course unstable individuals, though not necessarily suffering from conditions that would make them not legally responsible for their actions, may read more into the limited contact they have with others, online and off, than is warranted. This appears to have been the case with Mr. Brevik, who had delusions of leading a European-wide underground movement to defend the traditional cultural values of Europe against the influx of Muslim immigrants and their norms. But we can only get a sense of this possibility in each case once trials occur, and then only if the accused contests the charges. With guilty pleas we lose the opportunity to probe these matters further.
In most cases, and in line with human nature, people have a strong need, on the one hand, to share deeply felt beliefs or passionate views with others. On the other hand, they have an equally strong need to receive the justification provided by the attention and affirmation of others. Mr. Nuttal and Ms. Korody could share their enthusiasm, and they could encourage each other. But would this be sufficient?
Perhaps, with the assistance of a police informant posing as a collaborator, they were at least able to dream that their "heroic" actions would be appreciated by others. But much remains to be learned, since these seeming converts to radical Islamist views do not appear to have participated in any other religious activities, conventional or radical, at least not as reported so far. Mr. Nuttal was an aspiring rock star, so it seems unlikely that he would act without an audience in mind. But was the audience real, or largely imagined?
Lorne L. Dawson is professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo and is co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.