12/09/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/07/2015 05:59 EST

John Maguire ISIS Video Is 'Silly,' Say Radicalization Experts

Foreign fighters with the Islamist radical group ISIS are notorious for trying to inspire prospective recruits through slickly produced online videos.

But the newest recruitment video featuring a young Ottawa jihadi verges on the preposterous by, among other things, trying to make common cause over hockey, say a number of radicalization experts.

"It's a bit of silly messaging," says Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who is researching Canadian foreign fighters.

"You're not going to find a Muslim in Toronto who says, 'Hey, I also play hockey, I'm being persecuted, I guess, kind of, maybe I should migrate to the Islamic State.'"

But if this video is meant to present a sophisticated Westerner who gave up his comfortable life to go and fight for ISIS, it's missing the mark, say Amarasingam and others.

If anything, it could have greater propaganda potential in the Arabian Gulf, where images of a white Muslim convert preaching jihad will have a "shaming" effect on Middle Eastern Muslims, suggests Mohammed Robert Heft, president of the Paradise Forever Islamic Centre in Toronto.

"They'll look at him and be like, Wow, he had everything and he left [to join ISIS]."

Country specific

Along with its notorious beheading videos, ISIS has produced recruiting videos specific to different countries with Muslim populations.

For example, an earlier video aimed at Muslims in France emphasized the country's 2010 decision to ban face-covering headwear, including the niqab, which is worn by many Muslim women.

In April, ISIS released a video in which Farah Shirdon, from Calgary, burns his Canadian passport and tells Western nations "We are coming and we will destroy you by the will of God."

The man in the latest video, John Maguire, is an Ottawa native who was under RCMP surveillance after travelling to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in January 2013.

In the video, which was released Sunday, Maguire appears before the camera with an Arabic headscarf, a beard and an automatic rifle.

"I was one of you. I was a typical Canadian. I spent my teenage years on the hockey rink and on stage playing guitar," he says.

"So how could one of your people end up in my place?" he asks.

Countering the narrative

Maguire says he joined ISIS because he couldn't live under Canada's "unjust, man-made laws," as well as to help fight the "coalition of nations waging war against the Muslim people."

He calls on Canadian Muslims to either travel to the self-declared Islamic state or carry out attacks at home.

Amarasingam says ISIS's belief that it can win followers by throwing a few local references into its boilerplate message about Muslim grievances is ineffective.

They're "making an argument from deep inside the jihadi narrative," hoping that it will resonate with westerners "who don't believe in that narrative."

The fact that Maguire emphasizes that he was a "bright" student with a "strong" grade-point average in university is ISIS's attempt to counter the idea that Westerners who join the group suffer from mental problems, says Paul Bramadat, director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria.

Maguire appears to be challenging "the notion that only terribly alienated, dislocated, or mentally disturbed people might be attracted to this particular religious or political ideology," says Bramadat, who is also the co-editor of the book Religious Radicalization in Canada and Beyond. 

"By underlining his very ordinary upbringing – the hockey, the music – he is saying, 'Look, I have been a normal member of Canadian culture. I know what I am talking about. I am not an outsider.'"

But any right-thinking person can see through it, says Heft. "Who is [the message] really going to? A young, uneducated, sometimes depressed and unstable person in society.

"There's nobody who is a balanced person who says, 'Wow, he's fighting a great cause.'"

'Doesn't even know basic Arabic'

While Maguire is trying to convey a sense of belonging, anyone with knowledge of the Koran and Islamic teaching should be able to recognize that he is a dilettante, says Heft, a Muslim convert himself.

He suspects Maguire cannot speak Arabic, which is demonstrated in the way he quotes the Koran. Heft says anyone wanting to show his bona fides as a devout Muslim would quote the Koran in Arabic before providing the English translation.

"He said everything in English because he doesn't even know basic Arabic," says Heft. "You would never quote the Koran saying, 'Allah said' – Allah doesn't speak in English."

Heft says the video was a scripted message "with a bit of maple syrup, so to speak," and doesn't believe it will have much effect inspiring would-be jihadists in Canada.

The fact that ISIS has produced so many different videos suggests there is no single message that will inspire foreign fighters, says Jez Littlewood, a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The latest ISIS video is "part of that steady stream, it's attempting to push people's buttons," says Littlewood.

"But we know from historical cases that what will tip one individual over is not necessarily what will galvanize another individual to move from belief into that all important area of concern, actions — and more particularly, actions that involve violence."

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