The war on terror has been underway for nearly two decades. Yet there is still little appreciation in some political quarters of how this approach has often been counterproductive and even created the conditions for violent extremism to thrive. If we are ever going to move towards a less violent future, this must change.
On 25 May 2018, the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, together with the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) and the University of Lucerne, hosted a conference on “Jihadi Networks in Switzerland: Regional Clusters and Transnational Links”. Experts from academia and politics discussed the similarities, differences and connections of jihadist networks in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and the Balkans.
Though seldom mentioned in the same breath as prolific Western jihadi producers such as France, Germany, and Belgium, Canada has a long and often overlooked history of producing jihadists. From the “Millennium Bomber” and the “Toronto 18” to the “Ottawa 3” and the “Calgary cluster,” jihadis have organized on Canadian soil to carry out attacks, both in-country and around the world. While Canadians have fought on jihadi battlefields as far flung as Afghanistan and Syria, their government has failed to implement comprehensive counterterrorism and deradicalization measures. Lagging far behind its Western allies, Canada implemented its first counterterrorism strategy in 2012 and has yet to create a desperately needed nationwide deradicalization program. The rise of ISIS and lone wolf attacks has increased the need for these reforms.
Though the United States has a Muslim population over triple the size of that of its northern neighbor, the two countries have seen an approximately equal number of their citizens join the Islamic State (see Graph 1 below). Canada is more similar to Italy and Switzerland—European countries far closer to the Islamic State—in terms of fighters sent in relation to its Muslim/overall population than to the equidistant United States (see Graphs 2 and 3 below). The defeat of the territorially based Islamic State will surely herald an influx of Canadian jihadists to their home country. However, the provisions introduced in the Combating Terrorism Act of 2012 and strengthened in the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015, which prescribe lengthy prison sentences for any citizen “knowingly participating in or contributing to any activity of a terrorist group for the purpose of enhancing the ability of any terrorist group to commit a terrorist activity,” will do a great deal to mitigate the risks from this group. The greater threat to Canada lies in the radicals who never travelled to the Islamic State, thereby making themselves known to Canadian intelligence services, but instead remain embedded amongst the Canadian population. While there are a number of potential policies that Canada could implement to help combat homegrown jihadism, this analysis posits that a more comprehensive and reformed implementation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (CMA) and the creation of a national deradicalization program offer the two most pragmatic solutions to mitigate the threat posed by Canadian jihadis to Canada.
At approximately 2:40 in the afternoon of March 22nd, British-born Khalid Masood — a violent criminal who had previously been investigated by MI5 for links to extremists — deliberately drove into pedestrians making their way across Westminster Bridge. He killed a mother on her way to collect her children from school, a pensioner, and two tourists. After crashing the rented vehicle into the gates of Parliament, Masood ran into New Palace Yard and stabbed an unarmed policeman to death before being shot and killed by plainclothes officers. In contrast to other recent attacks in Western nations, which have frequently (sometimes incorrectly) been labeled acts of “lone-actor” terrorism, Masood’s assault was followed by a volley of articles with titles such as “Remote-Control Terror,” “Don’t Bet on London Attacker Being a Lone Wolf,” and “The Myth of the ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorist.” Analysts were keen to point out that “lone-actors” are very rarely truly alone and that instead they tend to emerge from within broader, extremist milieus. Moreover, what sometimes seems like lone-actor terrorism at first glance turns out to be connected to, if not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations. Yet the official word on Masood is that, regardless of his associations, he acted “wholly alone.” To accurately understand the nature of terrorism today, patient, measured analysis and consistent use of terminology are necessary. It is therefore important to re-examine the concept of lone-actor terrorism and to try and appreciate where it fits within the overall spectrum of jihadist terrorist activity in the West.
Many, if not most “lone-actor” jihadists (including Masood), are indeed connected to other extremists and terrorists in some shape or form. Such connections have been greatly facilitated by the growth of social media and encrypted communication applications, which have also enabled the rise of virtual “planners” or “entrepreneurs” and so-called “remote-controlled” or “enabled” attacks, such as those in Würzburg and Ansbach, Germany, in July last year. Moreover, the number of jihadists with bona fide connections to foreign terrorist organizations, including training and combat experience abroad, has risen sharply since the outbreak of conflict in Syria and Iraq. Western security services are currently bracing for a potential surge in the number of returning foreign fighters.
On June 28, three suicide bombers entered the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, where they killed 45 people and injured 229. Although only one of the terrorist was from Russia (the other two were Uzbek and Kyrgyz), it is almost certain that that their last words to one another were in Russian. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 7,000 Russian-speaking jihadists have made Russian the second most popular language of ISIL, after Arabic.
The Changing Demographics
That Russian should be the lingua franca of jihadists from the former Soviet territory is surprising. Many, perhaps most, younger Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks (judging by the gastarbeiters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan) do not know Russian well or even at all. That Russia is becoming widely-spoken is indicative of the explosive internationalization and the vastly expanded recruitment patterns of what might be called the Russian Jihad based in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia.
With an estimated 2,400 of its citizens fighting with ISIL, Russia is surpassed only by Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the number of its nationals in the extremist group’s ranks. It is far ahead of the top four European suppliers of ISIL soldiers: France with 1,800 fighters, Britain and Germany with 760 each, and Belgium with 470. Russian language graffiti has been spotted in Darayya, Syria (“We will pray in your palace, Putin! Tatars and Chechens, rise up!”), and there is an Univermag grocery store in the “Russian” district of ISIL’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, alongside Russian-language schools and kindergartens.