‘It is a battle for hearts and minds’: Trudeau’s $35 million gamble to counter radicalization

No easy solutions but these approaches are part of the toolkit. Small change compared to security expenditures:

A growing number of experts are advocating for a more holistic approach to countering violent extremism — one that attempts to address community grievances and feelings of social exclusion, he said.

Still, some say the terrorist propaganda and violent narratives on the Internet and social media sites — often infused with glorious references to past and valiant warriors — cannot be ignored and efforts must be made to squarely refute  their often misleading claims.

“It is a battle for hearts and minds,” Shaikh said.

Some of this is already happening in Canada. In 2015, Public Safety Canada threw its support behind a video project, Extreme Dialogue, that highlighted the stories of individuals who had walked away from extreme Islamist groups or far-right groups, as well as family members impacted by extremism.

Last year, Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence created a comic book that used humour to try to address some of the underlying causes of radicalization.

But do these counter-narrative campaigns ring hollow for their intended audiences? And how do you gauge success? By clicks and web visits?

Phil Gurski, a former CSIS strategic analyst, said trying to deconstruct and counter every piece of propaganda ends up being a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.” He suggested putting more emphasis on alternative narratives, for example, emphasizing Muslim empowerment and success stories.

But that still leaves the question of how to deal with individuals who are more deeply entrenched in their radicalization, such as foreign fighters who have returned to Canada. About 180 Canadians are known to have participated in terrorist activities overseas — mostly in Turkey, Iraq and Syria — and about 60 have returned.

If police fear someone may commit a terrorism offence, but don’t have enough evidence to charge them, they have sometimes gone to court to apply for peace bonds, which temporarily restrict an individual’s movements. But as the case of Aaron Driver showed, these bonds cannot always be relied upon to prevent violence.

Driver had been the subject of a peace bond that restricted access to his computer and cellphone and barred him from possessing firearms or explosives. Yet, last August, the Islamic State sympathizer was able to shoot a martyrdom video and get into a taxi with a homemade bomb before being shot and killed by police in Strathroy, Ont.

For those not quite as far down the path of radicalization, police in Toronto last year announced they had been experimenting with an early intervention model, not dissimilar to the one in Britain. Individuals deemed at-risk for violence are steered to “hubs” of community representatives who assess whether they might benefit from spiritual guidance, family counselling or mental-health support. Calgary police have a similar program in place.

Yet this approach creates other conundrums: Should such voluntary programs be mandatory? And should the goal be “de-radicalization” — the suppression of extreme ideology? Or is it more realistic to settle for “disengagement” — allowing a person to continue to harbour radical ideas so long as they do not resort to or support violence?

“The dangers to democracy are obvious here and not at all easy to reconcile,” Littlewood said. And, “success in one year may be undone two or three years later,” he added.

Whoever takes the helm of Canada’s new counter-radicalization office is in for a “mind-boggling” ride to try to create a coherent national framework for best practices, Gurski said.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know what works,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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