OTTAWA - The road of radicalization — from ordinary Muslim to Islamist extremist — comprises so many twisted, winding paths that its course is all but impossible to chart, experts say as pressure grows on government and law enforcement to simply stop it in its tracks.
But psychologists, researchers and Muslim leaders all agree that whatever the strategy, its success will depend on engaging with communities in a meaningful way, providing them with the tools to intercept and intervene before the dangerous journey even gets underway.
The red flags are often there, research shows. One pattern involves recent converts to Islam, or those who suddenly seem to embrace their faith with fresh zeal, who soon start criticizing the religious commitment of friends and even challenge the authority and teachings of imams or scholars.
In the days before Michael Zehaf Bibeau's deadly rampage at the National War Memorial and on Parliament Hill, he was showing signs of anger, frustration and religious zealotry, said some of those who encountered him at the Ottawa homeless shelter where he stayed. However, no one did anything.
"It is on all of us to identify or alert authorities; mind you, the majority of lay people do not have a good understanding of the issues around terrorism and this is kind of a problem," said Dr. Wadgy Loza, the former chief psychologist at Kingston Penitentiary and former chair of the extremism and terrorism section of the Canadian Psychological Association.
"It will become clearer to everybody as incidents like this happen."
In the case of Martin Couture-Rouleau, the RCMP had met with his family, taken his passport and spoken with his mosque before Couture-Rouleau — later classified by police as a radical Islamist — ran down two Canadian soldiers with his car last week in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., taking the life of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.
Too much focus is placed on imams who might not be in the best position to deal with those who have already become radicalized, suggested Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax who researches radicalization and terrorism.
Often, he said, those who are radicalized reject imams as heretics.
"The problem is finding an actor in the whole situation that the jihadist themselves will see as a kind of authentic person who can talk to them on the level that they're at and walk them back from the brink," Amarasingam said.
"Sometimes that is the imam, and sometimes it is not."
The involvement of police or government officials, meanwhile, can simply make matters worse.
"The individuals just get further sucked into that narrative which already says your religious leaders are sellouts and they've bought into western world views," he said. "It doesn't really look good if the enforcement arm of the western world is sitting in the same room as your imam talking to you."
In recent days, two divergent views of the "root causes" of Wednesday's attack have emerged. The notion of a terrorist seized purely with zeal for his distorted ideology has been tempered by an emerging picture of a desperate, drug-addled man "at odds with the world," as Zehaf Bibeau's mother Susan put it in a statement published Sunday by Postmedia News.
On Saturday, the advocacy group Canada Without Poverty issued a statement aimed at debunking the image of Zehaf Bibeau as a terrorist, saying the attack might never have happened had his needs been met by Canada's social and health care systems.
"Instead of 'redoubling' our efforts to combat terrorism, as Prime Minister (Stephen) Harper suggested after this incident, the government of Canada needs to 'redouble' its efforts to satisfy its obligations to provide a framework to ensure marginalized people have access to the services and programs they need," said Leilani Farha, the group's executive director.
Mental health plays a significant role in radicalization, said Loza, who noted that those who are at risk usually adopt a new faith because they're in search of something.
"They are looking for self-actualization — they want to be somebody; they are looking for status, for power, direction, a way out of their routine life," he said.
"These are the common parameters we talk about when they convert and the next thing, they start shooting people."
The same characteristics exist among those who join gangs or other violent groups, Loza added. But ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa offer a sense of participating in a broader struggle, one portrayed as virtuous and holy by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Police and security officials say dozens of Canadians are believed to have left Canada in recent months to join the jihad campaigns overseas, which began in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring movement in 2012.
That same year, the Conservative government unveiled a counter-terrorism strategy that acknowledged the threat posed by homegrown terrorists at home and abroad and laid out an approach to combating extremism by dealing first with their radicalization.
That plan put an emphasis on getting better input from local communities. It highlighted the work of the Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security, formed to help advise the government on security programs.
A year earlier, the committee had been asked for suggestions on programs that could help combat radicalization. In April 2012, they submitted a list of recommendations and suggestions, pointing out programs they thought had value and ways others could be built, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
"It is our view that communities need concrete initiatives to support them in order to assist in preventing and countering violent extremism," the proposal said in its conclusions.
In its reply, the government said it would undertake extensive research into all facets of the issue in order to develop its own strategy. One is expected to be unveiled by the RCMP in the coming weeks.
The government also asked for more help.
"I believe that the government would benefit from deeper exploration of the tools needed by communities to better understand and address violent extremism and would greatly welcome your views," then-public safety minister Vic Toews said in the reply.
Communities have made dozens of suggestions and requests every time they are asked, but nothing ever seems to come of it, said Hussein Hamdani, a Muslim community leader who sits on the roundtable.
"It's not all about getting money from the government, there are obviously things the community can do on its own," Hamdani said.
"But if you're saying the government is willing to lend a hand, but not bringing anything to the table, eventually the community is going to say, 'Don't ask if you're not going to help get it done.'"
— with files from Jim Bronskill
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