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Don't Give ISIS the Reaction it Wants

We must move beyond being revolted by the beheadings because that is the singular reaction ISIS seeks from those who do not respond by becoming recruits. Young radicals leaving Canada are individuals. We must see them as individuals and not just caricatures.

The horror of yet another online broadcast of a hostage beheading by an ISIS radical from England is the focus of global news again. The latest victim is an international aid organization worker.

This execution resonated with me personally. I was working with an international aid organization in the Philippines -- World Vision International -- when Moro National Liberation Front fighters were leading an insurrection in Mindanao in 1973-74. Being ambushed and kidnapped in areas where the US government had withdrawn its Peace Corps volunteers was a constant threat. A colleague spent months recovering from gunshot wounds after his jeep was ambushed.

On Christmas Eve, 1973, I was only a few miles away from a village in the Liguasan Marsh when terrorists beheaded a Muslim for entering a Christian village on a Christian holiday. The perpetrators of this killing did not have the internet to publicize their terror globally.

But terror is ineffective if no one is horrified. Publicity is required to shock those who would otherwise be unaware, and to frighten those in the vicinity. The solution at the time in this small village in Mindanao was to display the victim's head on the bridge at the town entrance so everyone would see it and be afraid. The following day, the Muslims responded by killing a pregnant Christian woman. Her disemboweled and mutilated body was publicly displayed as retribution.

My role was to design an aid program that would help to reduce tensions and bring healing and assistance after these reciprocal atrocities. One of the things I learned at ground zero of these terrorist beheadings was that the unconscionable killing of non-combatants for purposes of propaganda sickens many of those involved on both sides of the conflict. Many who voluntarily join extremist and revolutionary causes are repulsed by the intentional brutality of their collaborators.

How can we best leverage this sense of repulsion today? We need to begin as dispassionate a debate as possible to seek solutions to deter radicalized youth in Canada from travelling abroad to engage in jihad.

We must move beyond having Western politicians condemn ISIS beheadings in the harshest terms. ISIS wants as much attention in the global news media as it can get; and the more inflammatory the better.

Radicals primarily join as individuals who have an unbridled passion for the cause and a heightened sense of injustice. Many are motivated by idealism and may want to disassociate themselves from barbaric acts.

It is likely that those most capable of dissuading disaffected Canadian youth from travelling abroad to join jihadi campaigns are jihadis who have actually "been there, done that" and have become disillusioned. Even Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief at MI5 and MI6, says repentant fighters needed "to know that there is a place for them back at home."

When we seek to convince high school students to stay away from drugs and gangs, the primary messengers are reformed drug dealers and gang members. These speakers have street credibility that is not accorded to preachers or police.

Many Canadians are currently consumed with planning retribution for those who travel overseas to join conflicts. We are unwilling to look for any virtue or idealism in the unbridled passion that motivates those Canadian youth because our response is coloured by our reaction to the few involved in beheading.

We must move beyond being revolted by the beheadings because that is the singular reaction ISIS seeks from those who do not respond by becoming recruits. Young radicals leaving Canada are individuals. We must see them as individuals and not just caricatures. Our own interests in stopping the spread of this terrorism requires us to identify individuals among the thugs who have the potential for repentance. If we can nurture any virtue in their zeal, it may be possible to vanquish the evil that drives their current actions.

Our priority must be on dissuading new recruits rather than simply punishing those who have already gone. Some of them will return to Canada because they are disillusioned with and repulsed by the jihad they were naively recruited into. We need to plot a pathway to redemption so that we can mobilize these returning jihadis to deter other Canadians from being lured into radicalism.

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