Choosing between the letter and the spirit of the law

We make laws to reflect our values and to protect ourselves from those that would undermine them.  For instance, we say that murder is a crime because we value life.  We have laws against the theft of personal goods because we value our property.  In a more controversial vein, we have hate laws because we recognise that violent speech can foster violent action and destroy the societal fabric.

We also have laws that deal with terrorism. In Canada in particular, we have seen a flurry of legislation in the past few years as our security and intelligence agencies have been given more powers to thwart terrorism.  Some of these powers make sense while others have been subject to great debate as there is disagreement in this country on how intrusive and Orwellian certain measures are.

In the end, the law serves us, not vice versa.  It is incumbent on all of society to decide what laws we need and how should be applied.  We vote for politicians who enact legislation – if we don’t like what they do, they are turfed out in the next election.

It is also crucial that our judiciary has a free  hand in interpreting the law.  We don’t want laws to be politicised by the party that happens to be in power.  It is important to remember that the independence of the judiciary is a fundamental pillar of democracy.  That’s why we have trials to determine guilt.  In other systems, the state says whether you are guilty or not, and that’s that.  Furthermore, judges need wiggle room in applying the law.

The need to apply law in a logical, coherent fashion came to my mind the other day when I read that the British Library had decided not to proceed with a planned project to host archived documents of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan since the mere possession of this material would contravene anti-terrorism laws (you can read The Guardian article here).

Here, the law is truly an ass.  The British Library has no intention to use the Taliban documents to promote terrorism.  The collection would have been of inestimable value to scholars over time and as newer extremist movements arise.

Other academics have faced similar challenges as they try to study terrorism, often using primary sources. True confession: I have every issue of Inspire and Dabiq and a whole filing cabinet full of the writings of terrorist ideologues such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb and Abdallah Azzam.  As a former terrorism intelligence analyst, I would hope that my intentions are seen as honourable.

Believing that our security agencies have to monitor and crack down on every single use of terrorist material is both inane and a tremendous waste of limited resources.  I recall one instance where the Web browsing practices of an individual came to the attention of one country’s authorities only to turn out that the individual was an academic studying terrorism on-line.  You see, here’s the conundrum: you have to access primary sources to understand terrorism trends but if you access those sources you are committing an offence.  Surely there has to be a better way?

If you will pardon a mixed metaphor, we need to apply the law like Solomon did when he ruled on which mother had given birth to a baby: we don’t need to throw that same baby out with the bathwater.

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Signs of the times

Another group of young people disappears and ends up in Syria.  Another set of families devastated.  Another series of criticisms levied against the government for not stopping it.  Another lament of “we didn’t see this coming”.

The departure in February of three bright, accomplished young women from Bethnal Green in East London has shocked many (see New York Times article here).  The same shaking of heads and lack of comprehension has come to the surface as some now talk about how successful the Islamic State is and its version of “girl power”.  Several academics are diligently researching the phenomenon of female “jiihadis” – the current wave is unprecedented in history.  Researchers (especially Erin Saltman) at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in the UK in particular  have issued some amazing work such as their paper “Becoming Mulan”.  Laura Huey at Western and Amarnath Amarsingam at Dalhousie here in Canada are also providing valuable insight .

But what struck me as I read the comprehensive NYT piece was the number of solid, reliable behavioural indicators that should have led those in the girls’ ambit to question what was going on.  Note that I am not blaming anyone for “allowing” this to happen: the blame game is a waste of time.  And of course, hindsight is 20-20 as they say.  So, how can we make hindsight foresight?  Read on.

Among the clear indications that the girls were undergoing changes consistent with radicalisation were:

  • a deterioration in homework quality (red flag for otherwise very bright students)
  • defending the Islamic State in class
  • a sudden jump in religiosity (you have to be careful with this one since becoming devout is not a reliable sign of radicalisation)
  • a sudden inexplicable change from “Western” to conservative dress (ditto for this one)
  • a “noticeable change in attitude” detected by friends
  • obsession over the war in Syria
  • self-isolation and obsession with social media stories on conflict and atrocities
  • a family member who may have entertained radical views (one of the fathers)
  • scolding family members for being “un-Islamic”

And there were probably more.

So how do we get this information and awareness raising into the hands of families, teachers, peers and religious leaders?  If you will permit me a little self-promotion, we’re already doing it.  Well, we were.  While at Public Safety Canada we rolled out a highly successful outreach programme where these signs were provided to communities.  And some police forces are also heavily engaged with communities.  While I understand the lack of will in communities to act on concerns (fear of stigma, fear of arrest, fear of ostracisation…) there is no excuse for a lack of knowledge.

Fortunately (another shameless plug), these signs are discussed in great detail in my forthcoming book “The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield – coming out in a little over a month’s time).  We need to promote this knowledge in the hope that fewer people will successfully disappear to live, fight and possibly die in Syria, leaving broken families and communities behind.

The Harper government may not see the value in countering the radicalisation of Canadian Muslims, but many Canadians do.  Let’s hope for more initiatives at the grassroots level to face down this threat.

The signs are there – let’s do something about it.

Looking in the mirror

Canadians remember the 1988 Seoul Olympics when “our” sprinter Ben Johnson won gold in the 100-metre dash.  Celebrations turned to sorrow quickly, however, when accusations began to surface that Ben doped up before the race (it turned out he had been doping up for years).  A hero became a pariah.

What was interesting, however, about the incident was the immediate speculation by Johnson’s team that someone had “spiked” his water bottle just before he ran, thus tainting his urine sample.  It turned out to be a ludicrous claim, but was illustrative nonetheless about the human reaction to disaster. We blame someone else rather than turn the gaze onto ourselves.

Plus ca change – let’s look at the aftermath of the bombing in Bangkok.

In the wake of the attack, the immediate suspicion was cast on “foreigners” (you can always rely on dictatorial governments to blame outsiders for any violence in their country – and Thailand is currently run by a military junta).   Then the attention shifted to the Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in China: Thailand had recently deported more than 100 back to China (see story here).  But what if it is none of the above?

There was an interesting article in the Singapore Straits Times outlining the cast of possible perpetrators (see it here).  As it turns out, there is no end of potential here, from disgruntled military to frustrated supporters of the ousted PM to even IS-inspired terrorists.

The one group listed that caught my eye was the Malay insurgency of southern Thailand.  Far from the international news cycle, a low-level war has been simmering for decades in the four southernmost provinces in Thailand between the military and a heterogeneous group of ethnic Malay Muslim militants.  Thousand have been killed and scarcely a day goes by without a bombing or a shooting here and there.  Fatalities have included everyone from teachers to police officers.  And despite peace talks, there does not appear to be an end in sight.  True, the Bangkok bombing does not bear the hallmarks of a typical southern insurgent attack, but groups do adapt their methodology over time.  And the conflict is a festering sore.

It will probably take some time before we learn – if indeed we ever do – who or which group carried out the bombing.  To my mind, all the above characters are still in the running for responsibility.  I found it interesting that a Hindu temple was struck (leading me to put my money on IS since those guys hate all religions), but the fact that the site was a tourist draw means anyone seeking mass casualties could have done it.

The incident also reminded me of the 2003 bombing in the Madrid metro (Spain’s “9/11”).  The then government immediately singled out Basque separatists, despite a complete lack of evidence and the inconvenient fact that the MO was not one ever seen before in the long history of Basque terrorism.  It ended up of course that the attack was AQ-led or inspired and the government went down to defeat a few days later in the general election.  Hmm, is there a lesson here for Thailand?

Piecing together the clues after an attack is not easy and I empathise with Thai authorities.  And yet these same authorities might want to look in the mirror and consider all possibilities rather than settle on the Other, as is often the case.

Fed up

I don’t normally pay attention to what politicians say, especially during an election campaign, but someone alerted me (thanks to whomever that was!) to an interview this morning (August 15) with Defence Minister Jason Kenney on CBC’s The House.  In the exchange, which covered a number of items (the economy, Mike Duffy…), the Minister talked about the Harper government’s campaign against IS and threw in a few remarks about CVE (countering violent extremism).  For the record (you can catch the entire segment here), Mr Kenney shared the following tidbits with Canadians:

  • it’s naive to think the government can stop young people from being radicalized by extremist groups like ISIS,
  • young people who are susceptible to extremist views are, by definition, “not prone to listen to messages coming from organs of the state,”
  • the best way to diminish that power is to demonstrate that ISIS is on “the losing side of history” and to show the extremist group for what it is, “a bunch of thugs and terrorists,” and
  •  that (CVE) should be left with spiritual leaders, parents and others within the relevant communities.

There is a lot here to unpack and to be honest, I do not disagree fundamentally with most of it.  As a former employee of an “organ of the state” (Public Safety Canada), I was under no illusions that I or my colleagues could prevent anyone from doing anything in an extremist vein.  And Mr. Kenney is 100% right that the best voices are those from communities.  So, do I find myself in agreement with the Harper government’s approach to violent extremism in Canada?

Not really.

For as much as I accept that the federal government is NOT the right player at the counter-radicalisation table, this particular administration has gone out of its way to alienate the very communities that the Minister says are the keys to success.  How so?

  • it threw a valuable community player (Hussein Hamdani) under the bus based on outrageous allegations from a non-credible source (see my blog No way to run a railroad) and has hence lost all credibility;
  • it encouraged a slate of Senate recommendations that infringe on freedom of worship;
  • it keeps coming up with legislation that criminalises or demonises cultural and other practices that have nothing to do with terrorism; and
  • it uses language that offends when perfectly good alternatives are available.

So, in essence, Mr. Kenney is right: the feds have no role to play because they have been undermining themselves for years.  But at the end of the day, there is something the government can do: get behind the local initiatives that work.  I have been privy to many such efforts across Canada that are not looking for government control but could sure benefit from some help (financial, logistic, promotional, etc.).  A bit of assistance will go a long way.

But this government appears to have cast CVE into the garbage.  It has put all its eggs in the detention and incarceration basket (don’t get me wrong, these are absolutely necessary on occasion) despite everyone’s acceptance that we can’t “arrest” our way out of this problem.

AQ- or IS-inspired radicalisation and extremism is a difficult problem that defies simple solutions.  We need to have a variety of tools and approaches to deal with it.  We will never make progress if we treat each case as a nail and our only implement is a hammer.

Too bad our politicians can’t see that.

Simply no

It is rare for an intelligence agency to get public credit for what it does or how it does it.  It is even rarer for a group of intelligence analysts to be featured in a news story and described as at the forefront of understanding a particular threat.

Analysts are like the Steve Carrell character in Get Smart.  Maxwell Smart is an intelligence analyst – the best at what he does – yet he is constantly in the background while the sexier agents (or intelligence officers) like Dwayne Johnson get all the cool jobs (NB I am not really complaining about the disparity between analysts and IOs – I had by far the best job at CSIS for years).

So when a leading Canadian newspaper publishes a column in which analysts are given two thumbs up, I – and my fellow analysts – should be over the moon, right?

Yes ,and no.

Doug Saunders’ piece in the Globe and Mail (see it here) notes that the terrorism field has shifted recently as intelligence analysts begin to rethink old ideas about why someone becomes an extremist.  Apparently, we used to think that life experiences and background were important and now we realise it’s all about violence-prone people.  While I am grateful for the attention and Mr. Saunders’ acknowledgement that Canadian analysts are capable of understanding complex issues (btw Mr. Saunders, my colleagues and I at CSIS figured out that backgrounds were seldom relevant a decade ago – it’s all covered in my book appearing in mid-October), he commits the all-too-frequent error of reducing violent extremism to a simple formula.

There is no other way to say this: there is no pattern.  Yes, there are interesting trends that pop up occasionally, but these are not reliable over the long term.  Some terrorists change address, some don’t.  Some embrace a new religion, some don’t.  Some are unemployed, experience stress or have family breakdowns, some don’t.  Mr. Saunders cites Paul Gill’s work (true confession: I know Paul and am impressed with his scholarship) which is an important contribution to our growing understanding of violent extremism.  But on its own it cannot explain everything.  As the goblin said in Harry Potter – it’s complicated.

While I am commenting on the article in question, I have to note that another part puzzled me.  Mr. Saunders claims that we in the intelligence community were “trying to monitor and change people’s thoughts.”  Now I have no idea who his sources are but I can state categorically that the CSIS I worked for was not in the business of “changing people’s thoughts”.  Monitor yes – because that is how intelligence works.  For the record, though, I do not disagree with his statement that the current government is passing disturbing – and ineffective – counter terrorism laws.

I am very happy that we are starting to see more and more insightful pieces on terrorism and radicalisation in our major media.  The issues are important ones and need to be aired: Canadians have a right to know what is going on.  I am even happier that the analysts’ role is getting some airtime.

But let’s not jump on the bandwagon of any one finding.  That would be simply unwise.

Oh the places you won’t go

The Canadian Justice Department has been very busy on the anti-terrorism front lately.  After the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed what seems like ages ago, three other bills were rushed through Parliament in the past few years. S-7 made it an offence to travel to join a terrorist group or commit a terrorist act abroad.  C-44  enhanced CSIS’ powers to share information and operate outside Canada.  And of course there was C-51, the much maligned act that, among other measures, allows CSIS to engage in disruption activity.

And now Prime Minister Harper, in the midst of an election campaign, has promised to bring in more legislation – this time making it illegal to travel to travel to terrorist “hotspots”. (see CBC story here).

I know it we are in the early stages of the longest campaign in Canada in a decades and that much of what is promised by prime ministerial candidates never really gets implemented post election, but a law of this nature cannot remain unanalysed.

It seems to me that there are at least two questions that need to be asked about this proposed new anti-terror law: is it required and is it feasible?

The answer to the first one is easy: no.  S-7 already made it a criminal offence to go abroad for terrorism purposes and we already have a successful prosecution on those grounds (although it predated the law): the Mohammed Hersi case in Toronto. It is far from clear what new advantages this law would bring .

The answer to the second one is more complicated, but it too seems to be negative. Among the challenges are:

a) Most people travel to terrorist zones through international hubs like Frankfurt, London or Dubai.  The architecture to monitor these well-travelled routes would be enormous;

b) Who would determine legitimate travel?  Would you have to fill a form in?  Check off a box (aid worker, teacher, other)?  Furthermore, there are many cases of extremists who claim to travel for reason A (teach ESL, work in a refugee camp, go on hajj) and are actually going for reason B (join IS).  Few will check the “terrorist activity” box.

c) How many hotspots are there?  Yes, some are obvious (Syria, Somalia, Yemen).  But what about Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Turkey? Countries where terrorism flares up vary from to time to time. Would a spate of attacks in Italy put it on the list?  Besides, we already have a useful tool in the Department of Foreign Affairs travel advisory Web site.  Canadians can consult that in figuring out where not to go.

All in all, there does not appear to be much that speaks in favour of Mr. Harper’s plan.  In the absence of recent terrorist plots in Canada (thanks probably to the outstanding work of our security and law enforcement agencies behind the scenes), perhaps this Mr Harper’s way of reminding Canadians that terrorism is a threat (it is, but that does not justify this law).  Or a more cynical person would say the Conservatives are pandering to fear.  Either way, this is a bad idea.

I can think of one place Canadians should not go – to the line that supports this law.

One of these things is just like the other

I spent almost half of my career as an intelligence analyst looking at a very specific type of extremism: Al Qaeda and its ilk.  I looked at hundreds of cases of individuals who had radicalised in tune with the terrorist organisation’s ideology, and read hundreds of academic papers and dozens of books on the topic.  After a decade or so of firsthand observation and a lot of thinking – posing hypotheses and rejecting them – I felt that I had finally reached a point where I understood the radicalisation phenomenon.  At least this small section of it. The fact that I concluded that there was no pattern to the data should not detract from the sense of accomplishment I felt.

This laser-like focus on AQ and its world view meant that I was – and am –  woefully uneducated in matters of other kinds of extremism, whether it be environmentalist, white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, anarchist or others.  It is only thanks to the amazing work carried out by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the US that I know anything about the US skinheads, sovereign citizens and other problem children south of the border.

Then again, maybe 15 years of research has enabled me to grasp more than I thought.  I wondered about this as I read an account in the New York Times on Meir Ettinger, the Jewish extremist arrested recently (I wrote about him in Sins of the (Grand)father).  The article (see it here) provided a small window into Mr. Ettinger’s mindset and the more I read the more I recognised some very familiar aspects of religious extremism.

Allow me to explain.  When I lecture on AQ-inspired radicalisation, I point out that there are some consistent behaviours and attitudes that all these extremists share, regardless of their backgrounds (socio-economic, ethnic, family, education,etc.).  These common themes include: a sense of moral and religious superiority towards other faiths and even co-religionists, a belief in a divine mandate, the rejection of laws and secular systems, a belief in violence to achieve goals, obsession with apocalyptic scenarios, and a tendency to associate only with likeminded extremists.  These are well documented and can serve as warning signs that someone is heading down the “radicalisation pathway”.

So imagine my surprise – and satisfaction – to read that Mr. Ettinger subscribes to the following: according to the NYT he calls for the “dispossession of gentiles” who inhabit the Holy Land and the replacement of the modern Israeli state with a new kingdom of Israel ruled by the laws of the Torah.  An Israeli sociologist noted that he does not accept the validity of Israeli law, nor does he accept the validity of civic morality.  In addition, he believes he is duty-bound and religiously sanctioned to act whenever he thinks his view of the world is being violated.

Wow!  That’s pretty extreme.  You know what else is fascinating?  I can take Mr. Ettinger’s words, make a few minor changes here and there, and come up with the ideology of Chiheb Esseghaier, recently convicted in the Via Rail plot of 2013.  There is that much in common.  Muslim terrorist, meet Jewish terrorist – you have a lot to talk about.  Now if we could interview an abortion clinic bomber or an Odinist, we could do some serious cross-comparisons (or have the start to a politically incorrect joke – Bin Laden, Meir Kahane and Anders Breivik walk into a bar…).

What does this imply?  While I would never extrapolate from a sample size of 2 (others have, believe me), it suggests that those who subscribe to religiously-motivated extremism share some fundamental views – rejection of other faiths, conviction that God/Allah/Yahweh speaks to them/directs them, and a belief that the Almighty sanctions (or even demands) violence.  In other words, we may be able to study this subtype of terrorism as a semi-coherent whole.  Or maybe someone has already done that.

In any event, what binds people is sometimes more powerful than what divides them – even if they don’t see it.