Why do Canadians get involved in terrorism?
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
By: Rebecca Lindell
Alleged Canadian involvement in Algerian attack raises questions about homegrown extremism
OTTAWA – A terrorist attack that left at least 38 hostages dead in Algeria may have roots in Canada, according to the Algerian prime minister, a claim that would lengthen this country’s list of homegrown, violent extremists.
Canadian authorities are trying to confirm reports that two Canadian nationals were among a group of al-Qaeda militants who attacked a remote natural gas plant 1,300 kilometres south of Algiers last week.
Algerian officials, including Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, detailed the attack for the first time on Monday saying two Canadians were among a team of militants who planned to blow the plant sky-high. The attack started a four-day siege that left 38 hostages and 29 militants dead.
Despite the testimony from the Algerians, it is not yet clear whether the two men were actually Canadian citizens, if they ever spent time in Canada, or if they just held documentation from Canada.
"With regards to the identities of those involved, we have received no information on these individuals from the Algerian government," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.
A senior government official said Canadian diplomats have asked the Algerians - including the Algerian ambassador in Ottawa - to provide evidence that any hostage-taker was Canadian.
But it wouldn’t be the first time Canadians citizens were linked to ideologically-driven violence overseas.
“We know from past history that there have been several occasions where Canadian extremists have gone overseas to participate in armed conflicts and in many cases they end up dead,” said Stewart Bell, who is a senior reporter at the National Post and the author of two books about homegrown terrorism.
In 2008, Ottawa-born Momin Khawaja was convicted under Canada’s anti-terrorism laws for his role in plotting a London bombing with an Islamist extremist group. In 2006, a group of men called the Toronto 18 were arrested and charged for plotting to bomb Canadian targets in retaliation for the country’s involvement in Afghanistan. And just last week, Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana was sentenced to 14 years in prison for providing support to overseas terrorism in Pakistan.
Just last April Richard Fadden, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a Senate committee at least 45 Canadians have travelled or attempted to travel from Canada to Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to join al-Qaeda affliates.
Fadden also pointed to a "disturbing" number of Canadians or permanent residents involved in terrorist activities overseas back in 2010, naming regions like the Middle East, parts of Africa and South Asia.
The transformation from a Regular Joe to a radical is rooted in ideology, not location, according to Dr. Wagdy Loza, a psychiatry professor at Queen’s University and the retired chief psychologist of Kingston Penitentiary.
“It is not related to location but rather the leader who is convinced and the others who are willing to be convinced,” he said.
Key to the indoctrination is the idea of victimization by the West, Loza said.
“Basically they keep telling them your rights have been violated and will continue to be violated until you take your rights by your hands.”
It’s a sales job that recruiters in the West have become very good at, according another psychologist.
“A lot of it is the glorification of the cause. They tend to get quite good at attracting the right kind of person who wants to be part of that kind of cause who sees themselves as serving God and going forward with the cause,” said Steven Stein, who sits on the extremism and terrorist section of the Canadian Psychological Association.
That kind of person tends to be socially awkward, have low levels of critical thinking and is isolated, Stein said.
Isolation is also a feature Bell identified in his work writing about people implicated in terrorism.
“They isolate them in this very insular world where everything revolves around that type of thinking and they try to make sure people are no longer dressing like the West or speaking like the West or eating like the West even,” Bell said. “In so doing, you almost dehumanize people in the West to the point where people are willing to commit violence based on these ideas they’ve adopted.”
While he hasn’t uncovered a specific profile of a potential homegrown terrorist, Bell said in his work the people tended to be young and searching for identity or were going through periods of turmoil.
“In many cases the people who are converting to this ideology are going through crises in their own lives…at that point they are very vulnerable to being exploited and turned onto this type of thinking,” he said.
The Internet can play a significant role in the radicalization process as recruiters find and train potential terrorists online, especially in a post 9/11 world where borders can be increasingly hard to penetrate.
“What they are now doing is trying to indoctrinate Canadians who are already here and to tell them to conduct attacks. You can see they are harnessing the Internet in a very powerful way,” Bell said.
Websites and forums allow recruiters to post statements and videos and invite responses from the audience. Recruiters can follow up with respondents, putting them in touch with individuals and organizations on the ground.
Combating recruitment will take a multi-faceted effort by governments, community and religious leaders, according to Stein.
“We all have to work together and provide better advertising than al-Qaeda does is really the bottom line,” he said. “We have to show it is not a glorious life…it’s not the fantasy they’ve been sold by al-Qaeda.”