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10 Signs Someone Is Becoming Radicalized to Violence

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If there were any doubts remaining in the minds of Canadians that this country has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, the events of this past year most surely brought them to a decisive end.

The two terrorist attacks in October and the participation of over 130 Canadian citizens in the Islamic State's military campaign make it clear a growing number of our compatriots are edging towards violent extremism. The recent surge in these types of incidents is not unique to Canada, but instead part of a wider phenomenon.

While Al-Qaeda has been decimated, the proliferation of the Internet has made it easier for extremist propaganda to negatively influence young Canadians who are looking for a purpose. For some, exposure to these warped ideas has led them down a violent path.

Canada's security officials are doing the best job they can with the limited resources they have to identify radicalized individuals and mitigate the threat they pose to our security. But the complexity of the situation means they can't simply arrest their way out of the problem.

This is because the process of radicalization is often subtle, making it difficult for police to spot extremists before it's too late. If the radicalized individual hasn't had any previous run-ins with the law, it's even harder. Unlike with more elaborate terrorist plots, these extremists act alone which makes it tougher for security officials to intercept communications that might reveal their intentions.

A robust counter-terrorism response isn't always the ideal approach, either. If possible, it's safer, faster and less expensive to dissuade at-risk individuals from going further down the path of extremism before they commit a crime. This dissuasion is often more effectively delivered by people within their communities.

Canada's security officials are well aware of these realities and are adapting their approach to reflect the complexities of the threat. Their approach includes community outreach and engaging with leaders from Canada's many diverse communities to discuss cooperative ways of leading Canadians away from radicalism. Grassroots collaboration is key to building trust between stakeholders and promoting information-sharing.

These efforts highlight the role each community member can play in preventing radicalization by taking action when someone they know moves towards extremism. It not only includes community leaders, but parents, teachers, professors, doctors, and social workers as well. Police officers, prison guards and parole officers should also be on the lookout for signs of radicalism to violence.

But for this to happen on a large scale, it's important that everyone be aware of what these signs actually are. Experts involved in national security have arrived at a consensus that the following traits are an indication that someone is becoming radicalized:

1. The individual abruptly abandons friends and family members.

2. In the increasingly rare occasions where they do see their family, they berate them for their supposedly impious behaviour. This may well include accusing their father of being an infidel for consuming alcohol or calling their sister a slut for not wearing the proper headwear.

3. They stop participating in activities that used to occupy a lot of their time such as sports or community associations.

4. They believe they have found the true path to religious enlightenment, usually in the form of radical Sunnism, and anyone else who doesn't follow it is of less worth.

5. They often exhibit growing hatred and intolerance towards others who don't adhere to their beliefs.

6. This includes rejecting fellow Muslims of different sects, as well as Imams who repudiate violence.

7. They refuse to engage with or debate ideas that counter their own.

8. They turn their back on their life as it was before radicalization.

9. Surfing of pornography and violent jihadi/anti-government websites takes up increasingly large chunks of their day (12-16 hours).

10. They develop obsessive patterns of behaviour and they pine for martyrdom and the apocalypse.

Every jihadist who has come to the attention of the authorities has exhibited several, if not all, of these traits. However, not every individual who demonstrates some of them has necessarily become fully radicalized to violence.

Because of this, officials will often have to chase down many dead ends before they find a terrorist.

In order to stem the radicalization of Canadians, we must ensure that this effort is conducted in an inclusive way that welcomes the participation of all communities. The vast majority of Canada's Muslims are just as concerned about radicalization as everyone else, as they themselves frequently are the first to feel the scorn of extremists within their community.

Canada's radicalization problem is a serious one, but by learning the signs that extremists exhibit while they are still in a pre-criminal space, we have a chance at mitigating the threat.

Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. Kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca

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