The government has been using “counter-radicalization techniques” to steer Canadian Muslims away from extremism, according to a secret intelligence report obtained by the National Post.
The document outlines a little-known, government-wide, counter-radicalization strategy that aims to prevent al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists such as the London transit bombers from emerging within Canada.
The measures described in the report range from meeting with community and religious leaders and urging them to tackle radicalization to the more controversial tactic of intervention by police and security officials.
“The manifestation of Islamist terrorism in the West over the past few years has led to concerns over the radicalization of Western Muslims,” begins the 13-page Canadian Security Intelligence Service document. “Terrorist plots in the U.K., Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and other Western countries have been planned or carried out by Muslims born, or raised, in those countries…. In an effort to prevent future attacks, government responses have begun to address strategies to counter radicalization in their communities.”
Canadian officials have not typically discussed their initiatives to fight radicalization, and there is no obvious mention of the strategy on the government’s official Web site.
The report lists four counter-radicalization techniques employed in Canada: “intervention with at-risk youth,” “arrests and incarceration,” “outreach” and “a whole of government approach.”
“One important assessment that has universal acceptance is that individuals at the initial stages of radicalization are more susceptible to change or diversion than those at the latter stages,” the report says.
“If those at the beginning are still assessing their interest in joining a group or ideology, intervention should be able, in theory, to lead them down a less dangerous path.”
Canada secured its first two convictions under the Anti-Terrorism Act last fall. Found guilty were a member of the so-called Toronto 18 terrorist group and Momin Khawaja of Ottawa, who is to be sentenced on Feb. 12.
But while Canadian authorities have now made several arrests, the government has said little about its efforts to combat the extremist beliefs at the root of today’s terrorism concerns.
The document provides a rare glimpse into Canada’s initiative, although it says it is too soon to tell whether it has been successful. The report also acknowledges that Ottawa is not involved at all in the de-radicalization of existing extremists, which the report likens to deprogramming cult members.
Outreach is the most high-profile part of the program. The RCMP, CSIS and other agencies have been meeting with community groups to discuss radicalization.
The report says the purpose of outreach is to “encourage community and religious leaders to take steps to monitor and counter the radicalization process in their communities.”
Lesser known is the tactic the report calls “disruption/intervention,” which it describes as “the active intervention of a security or law enforcement agency, together with other partners, with an individual whose activities are cause for concern.”
Intervention tactics include interviewing youths identified as at-risk, and sometimes speaking with their families or close associates, “and on occasion presenting the individual with evidence of activities deemed injurious to national security,” it says.
The report says it takes time to determine whether an intervention has worked.
“Success is difficult to measure as initial disruption may cause an individual to end activities for a period of time. Hence only long-term investigation can determine if the cessation of involvement in Islamist extremism is permanent,” it says.
The report does not indicate how frequently the tactic is used. The Ministry of Public Safety acknowledged it was involved in outreach and research on radicalization but declined to discuss its use of intervention tactics. Jacinthe Perras, a ministry spokesperson, said “it would be inappropriate to discuss the operational techniques of our portfolio partners.”
The document was written by the Intelligence Assessment Branch of CSIS. It is dated December, 2007. A de-classified copy was only recently released under the Access to Information Act.
Although only a small minority of Muslims are attracted to the violent ideology of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, CSIS calls them a “serious problem” and a “direct and immediate threat to Canada.”
“Radicalization of teenagers and younger children in Canada is ongoing,” says another newly released CSIS intelligence report, written in 2008 and titled “The Islamist Radicalization of Youth: Echoes in Canada.”
A third intelligence study, “Radicalization in Canada,” notes that in a 2007 Environics poll of Canadian Muslims, 12% of respondents thought that terrorist attacks against Canada were justified.
“If the factors that drive radicalization do not abate, including the perception that Islam is under attack, it is expected that radicalization and hence the need for counter-radicalization measures will increase.”
Jack Hooper, who was the CSIS Deputy Director of Operations until his retirement in 2007, said there has been debate within the intelligence service over countering radicalization. The debate revolved around whether CSIS had a mandate to perform counter-radicalization, whether it was an efficient use of resources and whether it was even an appropriate role for the agency, he said.
“I can’t believe that most Canadians would want what they would term as spies going out into communities and trying to change behaviour,” Mr. Hooper said. “That is repugnant to me and I think that would probably be repugnant to a lot of Canadians. They would have no objection to social workers and maybe other government agencies having programs like that, but an intelligence service?”
As part of the counter-radicalization effort, police have been trying to build bridges with Muslim youths. RCMP counterterrorism officers joined young Muslims for a soccer match at BMO Field in Toronto last December. Afterwards, they sat down and talked.
“The game was excellent and the idea is good,” said Muhammad Robert Heft, who attended the match. “I think any time you get to know people personally, it maybe makes you a little bit more compassionate towards them as individuals, and it breaks down some of the stereotypes that both sides might have had.”
But he said some “more radical people” are reluctant to get to know the police because “they seem to think ‘it’s useless, they’re still going to pick on us, they’re still going to be profiling us,'” said Mr. Heft, who heads Paradise Forever, a support group for Muslims.
“It’s also not the only solution because you’re not going to convince people who are hell bent on hurting people that playing soccer is going to soften them up. But what you’re going to do is soften the people around them up, who might be more apt to co-operate. That’s the key.”