A New Approach to Counter Radicalization

by Rob Denaburg, M.A. Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Rob is currently a summer intern at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism in Washington DC. 

The Canadian government has, on multiple occasions, noted the threat – and acknowledged the existence of – radicalized Canadians going abroad to train with terrorist organizations and potentially partaking in terrorist activity. A Public Safety Canada (PSC) report from 2013 noted that there are likely several dozen such Canadians currently abroad in places like North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Caucasus, and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michael Coulombe suggested that there are approximately 30 in Syria alone.

Canada has recently amended its anti-terror legislation to specifically prohibit Canadians from leaving the country to join foreign terrorist organizations. The only conviction under Canada’s anti-terrorism laws – the recent case of Mohammed Hassan Hersi – would fit the under this ‘foreign’ designation (though he was charged under the original provisions because his arrest occurred prior to the amendment).

Not only does Canada want to prevent its citizens from contributing to terrorist activity abroad, there are concerns that individuals like Hersi will return home with training, combat experience, and connections to international terrorist networks. They could be actively seeking to recruit, radicalize and train other Canadians, or even partake in terrorist activities themselves.

As defined by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), radicalization is “the process by which individuals – usually young people – are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate, mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.” PSC further notes that radicalization is the “precursor to violent extremism.”

Radicalization on its own is not necessarily dangerous, nor is it a crime; thoughts alone cannot be criminalized. It is the point at which radicalization leads to violent extremism that is a threat. The problem, however, is that there are seemingly few effective options for addressing the issue between the process of radicalization and the point where the individual actually commits – or credibly plots to commit – terrorist acts, known as violent radicalization. This means that many approaches to countering radicalization tend to be reactive rather than proactive.

Canada – along with other countries facing similar threats – needs to find a more proactive solution to the issue of radicalization, particularly for foreign fighters whose activities abroad cannot be monitored very easily.

In an article from early April, Stewart Bell highlighted the EXIT organization in Germany, whose Hayat program works with those close to highly radicalized foreign fighters, or those aspiring to leave their homes to fight abroad. The program aims to stop those who haven’t left from leaving, prevent those who have left from engaging in violent activity, and to try to convince those who have left to return home.

EXIT does so by empowering those with an emotional connection to the individual, trying to reduce feelings of isolation or persecution, and cautiously delegitimizing radical interpretations and beliefs. They also help families identify provocation, employ de-escalation strategies, create compromises within certain boundaries while respecting the individual’s faith, and present opportunities for them to abandon the path of radicalization. In most cases, the program does not directly involve government authorities, but the Hayat program staff work closely with them and keep them informed of developments.

Studies and cases have shown that family and friends can play a critical role in slowing or reversing radicalization. Canada would benefit from a similar program that attempts to use friends and family members to help reverse or at least halt the process of radicalization before individuals become violent, and pose a threat to others at home, abroad, or even themselves.

Canadians have been using the German-funded Hayat program because they have nowhere to go for a service like this, but EXIT would rather train Canadians to provide the assistance themselves. There is evidently a need for something similar in Canada, and such a program would be in the Canadian government’s interest given the noted threat posed by radicalized Canadian individuals.

This is not to say that there aren’t Canadian counter radicalization policies in place. In Canada’s 2013 counter-terrorism strategy and report on the terrorist threat to Canada, counter-radicalization strategies focus on community-level outreach initiatives intent on mitigating potential violence. The difference, however, is that these are broad efforts aimed at the community as a whole, rather than a more focused and targeted approach.

A Senate report does indicate that there are more targeted interventions for those who they suspect are “actively seeking to break the law,” but this approach is still more reactive than proactive – it is meant to prevent illegal activity, rather than the process of radicalization that it results from. Adding to the problem is that intervention by law enforcement is likely only to make the individual feel more marginalized, and therefore more prone to radicalization.

One caveat to the Hayat model is that the radicalized individuals most intent on fighting abroad will not likely be assisted or deterred by this strategy. Further, approaching radicalized individuals without the necessary tact and understanding of the common narratives of radicalization can have an inverse effect, reinforcing their radical beliefs.

That said, learning from the Hayat model and sharing its best practices could provide a Canadian equivalent with the tools necessary for this program to be effective, and this could diminish the threat posed by Canadian foreign fighters to our national security.

Image by  Tim Shields BC via Flickr.


Categories: Counterradicalization

2 replies

  1. As a counselor in the Hayat program I can say that Hayat indeed has been working with families of highly radicalized individuals in all stages, including those intending to leave for fighting with ISIS and others, or who are already there fighting (even domestic terrorism cases have been taken over by the program) or return. The program was designed to work in all stages of individual radicalization processes (for the methodology see: http://journals.sfu.ca/jed/index.php/jex/article/view/49). Of course the earlier in the radicalization process counseling starts, the better but Hayat has proven successful in highly radicalized cases as well. Hayat also does not approach individuals but gets contacted by their families (or teachers, employers, social workers…) thus avoiding a possible backlash by an ill planned and tactless approach to contact them directly.

    • Thanks for your response, Daniel! Sorry I only happened to see it now. I assume you are the same Daniel Koehler whose work is referenced in this article, so it’s truly an honour to get a response from you. Your article about the Hayat program was very enlightening. I still remain hopeful that Canada can pursue a similar program with guidance from your organization.



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