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April 27, 2014

Canadian Terrorists

Reuel S. Amdur

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The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences held a breakfast meeting on Parliament Hill on March 4 to address the question "Why do some Canadians become terrorists?" The presenter was Lorne Dawson, University of Waterloo professor and Chair of Sociology and Legal Studies. He has a special interest in the sociology of religion.

In his talk, he noted that the average Canadian is not especially worried about terrorism, while a recent Gallop poll in the U.S. found it to be the number one concern.  Yet, he said, in recent years more than a hundred Canadians travelled aboard to fight for terrorist groups.  And in 2010, CSIS investigated over 200 people whose activities they defined as terrorist.

There is no single explanation as to why.  One might begin with the case of the Mississauga 18.  To begin, there was a leader, and the 18 never fit in with Canadian boys.  Salafi influence was another factor.  Ideology is important, as it gives an answer providing relevance.  This case involves small group interaction under a leader.  This kind of thing is especially powerful with teens, who are sorting out their identity and questing for significance.  This kind of group provides a tight bonding.  “Soldiers die for their buddies, not for their country.” 

Dawson is convinced that there will be terrorist events in Canada.  “It is not a matter of if, but when.”  His prediction is based on the fact that there are young men with military training coming back from fighting for terrorist groups abroad. 

Besides religious radicalization of young Muslim males, he sees other groups as potentially producing terrorists.  For example, Aboriginal youth who grow up being socialized in families with radical views.  As a man who has been married to two different Ukrainian wives—one divorced and the other deceased—he would not be surprised if some Ukrainian-Canadian young men chose to don a uniform and take a gun in the Ukraine.  A trigger event can be the recruiting factor, and the current situation in the Ukraine could be such a factor.

Dawson spoke of radicalization among Somali-Canadians and Tamils.  He noted that some Tamils went to take part in the fighting in Sri Lanka, as some Somalis go to Somalia to participate in radical Islamic military action.  While the Tamils do not seem apt to bring violent activities back to Canada, he is not so sure about the Somalis.

Speaking about young Muslims in general, he said that they need to learn how to become engaged in the social process.  Both the United Kingdom and Germany are reaching out to extremists to get them to become positive leaders.  After all, with their backgrounds, they have the “right cred.”  Such a program can, however, go off the rails.  For example, it is important not to involve just one segment of a community.  While such an approach can deter many, there will always be some individuals who are never deterred.

The question as to how people become involved in terrorist groups is part of a larger question: How does someone become involved in any group?  For example, what about criminal youth gangs or cults?  Leadership can be an important factor  in both these kinds of groups.  While there are general characteristics of group initiation, there are differences as well.  Thus, religious terrorist groups function with a moral imperative that is absent in criminal gangs.

How can militant youth be redirected?  Dawson suggests that getting them to focus on civil rights issues where they may be effective is one way.  They may become involved and get spirited in such an endeavor.  Religious leadership is important here, but “not all imams are necessarily getting the message.”

In getting support for developing appropriate youth programs, he suggested that politicians may not always be the people to influence.  Civil servants and other public officials may be more helpful and knowledgeable, for example, some people in the RCMP.

So what do we make of Dawson’s presentation?  For one thing, he acknowledges that there is a lot more to learn.  The field is full of knowledge gaps.  For instance, only now is there any systematic effort being made to study Muslim conversion in the West.  (A suggestion: a major factor may turn out to be marriage to a Muslim.)  Some but far from all of those involved in terrorist activities in Canada were recent converts.  Part of the knowledge gap involves the existence of secret police files that could be usefully mined by academics if they were permitted access. 

Finally, there is as major caution.  It is one thing for social scientists to develop useful information and understanding for prevention of terrorism and to promote pro-social integration of young people.  It is, however, a real danger that social scientists will be coopted into becoming part of a conservative or reactionary apparatus suppressing movements for social change.  Dawson suggests engaging people in civil rights movements, but those in power may not like that kind of activity.  Social scientists are not necessarily immune from reactionary behavior.  There are social psychologists who rent out their expertise to fight unions.

As for the trustworthiness of the authorities, remember the name Maher Arar.  They do not always know what they are doing. 

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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