How Psychologists are Contributing to the Prevention of Terrorist Violence in Canada

by Alana N. Cook, PhD Student, Simon Fraser University, Department of Psychology

The assessment and management of risk for terrorist violence: How psychologists are contributing to the prevention of terrorist violence in Canada

Psychologists play a unique and critical role in preventing terrorist violence through (1) the development and validation of risk assessment tools and (2) the implementation of these tools to effectively assess and manage terrorist violence risk.

Terrorism and other forms of group-based violence

It is well accepted in psychology that an individual’s decisions and behaviour are influenced by the social groups they belong to. Principles from social psychology – group theory, group dynamics, and group interaction – provide a basis for understanding how social groups influence behaviour at the individual level, including engagement in violent behaviour (see Pynchon & Borum, 1999). Theoretical and empirical evidence suggests that the same group processes apply across different types of groups. That is, group processes that impact terrorist groups are largely the same as those that impact other potentially violent groups, such as gangs and organized crime groups (see Monahan, 2011). As such, we can understand and potentially assess for terrorist violence using similar principles that apply across various forms of groups (for a detailed discussion see Cook, Hart, & Kropp, 2013).

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists violence committed by members of groups as an important subtype of violence causing concern worldwide. The WHO indicates that group-based violence has increased over the last thirty years and represents a daily challenge and threat for criminal justice agencies that protect public safety internationally. Group-based violence may be defined as actual, attempted, or threatened physical injury that is deliberate and nonconsensual, perpetrated by one or more individuals whose decisions and behavior are influenced by a group to which they currently belong or with which they are affiliated (see Cook, Hart, & Kropp, 2013).

Canada faces the challenge and threat of many forms of group-based violence, including terrorist violence. In 2012, there were 114 incidents of terrorist violence in Canada (less than one per 100,000 in the population; see Statistics Canada, 2013). The majority of incidents in 2012 were related to hoax terrorist activity (71 incidents; 62%). The remainder included 19 incidents of participating in an activity of a terrorist group (17%), 15 incidents of providing or making available property or services for terrorist purposes (13%), and 5 incidents of facilitating terrorist activity (4%)[i]. Although official statistics for 2013 are not yet available, Canadian law enforcement agencies thwarted two major terrorist plots last year: an alleged plot to bomb the BC Legislature on Canada Day and an alleged plot to derail a VIA Rail train in the Toronto area. In both cases, legal decision makers were required to determine if the alleged suspects were at risk to commit future violence in determining bail. Authorities are also routinely asked to determine if convicted terrorism offenders should be released from detention before their warrant of expiry. The operational and legal decisions made in these types of cases are similar to those made daily in cases of other forms of violence, such as homicide, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence, that threat assessment professionals responded to often using validated risk assessment tools to inform their assessment and management decisions.

Psychologists are internationally recognized for the development and research of risk assessment tools for various forms of violence risk

Canada has long been internationally recognized for our progressive efforts to create and utilize risk assessment guidelines to prevent violence. Risk assessment tools have been developed, validated, and widely implemented for various forms of violence risk (e.g., intimate partner violence, sexual violence). Researchers have cautioned, however, that traditional risk assessment tools have limited applicability when used with terrorists, whose actions are often influenced by or take place in the context of groups (see Monahan, 2011).

Until recently, there were no risk assessment tools for the individual assessment and management of terrorism. The development and validation of risk assessment tools is one way psychologists are contributing to the prevention of terrorist violence. One new risk assessment tool developed by my colleagues, Dr. Stephen Hart and Dr. Randall Kropp, and I is a structured professional judgment tool for comprehensive, management-oriented assessment of group-based violence, including terrorist violence, called the Multi-Level Guidelines, or MLG.

It is imperative that all of the recently developed tools that examine risk for terrorist violence be evaluated for utility, reliability, and validity of the use of these tools in practice. Internationally psychologists are involved in the development and validation of new tools and are conducting research on the risk and protective factors of engaging in terrorist violence. Many of the leading researchers in this area are Canadian, such as TSAS Senior Research Affiliate Dr. Elaine Pressman.

Utility and Reliability of the Multi-Level Guidelines (MLG).Recent research supported by a Kanishka Project Contribution from Public Safety Canada on the MLG indicated that that psychologists and other threat assessment professionals (i.e., criminal justice, security, and intelligence analysts) found the MLG useful for their practice and judgments concerning the presence of risk factors, as well as the nature and level of risks posed for terrorism and other forms of group-based violence using the MLG, were made with a degree of reliability comparable to that reported in evaluations of other risk assessment tools. Requests for a detailed copy of these results may be made to: alanac@sfu.ca.

Psychologists conduct risk assessments to inform risk management plans that aim to prevent violence

Forensic psychologists are frequently employed to assist law enforcement, psychiatric review boards, judges, juries, and other key decision makers to determine the risk that an individual poses for future violence and how to best manage the risk of that individual so they do not commit violence in the future (see Hart & Logan, 2011). Forensic psychologists implore risk assessment guidelines, like the MLG, to make systematic and standardized decisions about the potential for future violence risk in a given case to assist decision makers. The assessment of terrorist violence requires the integration of individual-level factors (e.g., history of violence, lack of pro-social integration) and group-level factors (e.g., group identify, group norms) that influence that individual to engage in violence. While psychologists are often asked to conduct these assessments, no one person of any profession can competently and comprehensively assess an individual’s risk for group-based violence. Psychologists completing these assessments will be reliant on those with a group-level professional focus– such as criminologists and crime intelligence analysts – to obtain group-level data necessary for the assessment. Psychologist are also in a position to train and assist other professionals in implementing these type of risk assessment guides. Similarly, other professionals completing these assessments will be reliant on those with individual-level professional focus (e.g., law enforcement officers who focus on individuals, parole officers) or a group-level professional focus to augment their own expertise and experiences.

Discussion Questions

In addition to the development and implementation of violence risk assessment tools to assessment and manage terrorist violence risk, what other ways may psychologists contribute to preventing terrorism in Canada?

The assessment of group-based violence assumes membership or affiliation with a group – a group refers to an identifiable collective of two or more individuals who have some stable pattern of associations based to some extent on shared attitudes, norms, values, or goals. What about cases on lone actors whose affiliation or connection with a group is non-existent (e.g., delusional affiliation) or unimportant to their risk for violence?

[i] Potential crimes related to terrorism in Canada includes: hoax terrorist activity, participating in the activity of a terrorist group, commission of offence for terrorist group, facilitating terrorist activity, instructing to carry out terrorist activity, providing or making available property or services for terrorist purposes, using or possessing property or services for terrorist purposes, harbouring or concealing (terrorist) and freezing of property, disclosure and audit (terrorism).

Image by A Health Blog via Flickr.

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Categories: Counterradicalization

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