What is the Violent Extremist Landscape in Canada?
In comparison with other Western countries, Canada may be considered relatively lucky when examining its history of violent extremism. The Canadian Incidents Database [CIDB] identified 1,405 terrorist or extremist incidents occurring in Canada between 1960 and 2014, in addition to 410 Canadian-affiliated (perpetrator or target) terrorist or extremist incidents occurring outside of Canada during the same time period. Canadian militant jihadists became a focus in the 21st century, especially after the events of September 11, 2001. Indeed, Canada had their own landmark terrorist event inspired by al-Qaeda that thankfully was thwarted before being carried out by the Toronto 18. The global “War on Terror” consumed counterterrorism experts in the West, including Canada, though aside from the thwarted Toronto attacks that would have been of the same magnitude as those on 9/11 there were only six militant jihadist-inspired attacks perpetrated in Canada over the past two decades, with all six inspired by ISIS and committed during ISIS’s heyday between 2014 and 2018. All were committed by so-called “lone actors” who did not have direct contact with ISIS members but who were inspired to commit violence after engaging with their content online. Prior to September 2014, there were no successful jihadist-inspired attacks on Canadian soil, though five plots were successfully foiled and 25 people were arrested in connection to those plots, including the Toronto 18. Another three jihadist-inspired plots were thwarted between 2014 and 2020, with four people arrested.
In a comprehensive study, Shandon Harris-Hogan, Lorne L. Dawson, and Amarnath Amarasingam identified 50 Canadian domestic jihadists active over the past 20 years. This number pales in comparison to the approximately 185 Canadian citizens and residents who left Canada to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria as foreign terrorist fighters [FTF], including one who returned and infuriated Canadians by his claims of brutal killings made in the New York Times “Caliphate” series and returning to Canada with apparent impunity. In many ways, Canadian FTFs are similar to those of other Western countries, though far more left from Western Europe than from North America and their reasons for travel differ in important ways. Western Europe has also faced attacks perpetrated by people who trained with ISIS in Syria before returning home, while Canada and the United States have not. This is despite the fact that somewhere between 10 and 60 Canadian FTFs have returned home since 2017. One female Canadian FTF, Kimberly Pullman, was profiled in Homeland Security Today in 2020.
Of course, militant jihadists are not the only terrorists who have posed a threat to Canada in the past, nor are they the only terrorists who will pose a threat to Canada in the coming decade. White supremacists and other far-right violent extremists are a growing threat in Canada and throughout the Western world. These groups have been active in Canada for decades but have long been underestimated. As a case in point, a study in the Canadian Review of Sociology (conducted in 1993 and published in 1997) concluded that “the political consciousness of skinheads is rooted in extreme violence and lacks coherence: this, combined with the structure of their groups and their histories of [personal] oppression, serves to inhibit long-term political activity.” Even in 2015, another study concluded that the extreme right was a “negligible” force in Canada. More recent research, and the testimony of Canadian former members of far-right violent extremist groups, demonstrate that these predictions were wrong. There is evidence that increased anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric in Canadian local and national politics may have contributed to a “climate of hate” that empowered some far-right extremists, and that police and security services in Canada, as in other Western countries, have underestimated the threat of far-right extremists in comparison to militant jihadists. Likewise, with their neighbor having a president seemingly encouraging white supremacists and groups like the Proud Boys, vulnerable Canadians were undoubtedly also influenced to have a less dim view of such groups. Notably, the founder of the Proud Boys, Gavin McInnes, is Canadian.
In an ICSVE interview, Canadian former Proud Boy Josh Chernofsky said of his participation in the group, “I felt like I was standing up for Canada. There were some [members] who weren’t white. One guy was Asian.” As such, Josh believed that the Proud Boys were not white supremacists. Rather, they were professing “Judeo-Christian values. They were upset about ‘creeping shariah,’ that our prime minister is allowing it.” Eventually, Josh grew disillusioned with the Proud Boys after Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy, who was living in Canada and had been incessantly harassed by the group, killed herself.
Indeed, one study attributes the rise of white supremacist violence and hate crimes in Canada, which paralleled trends in the United States, to the rhetoric and election of former President Donald Trump, with a flyer posted on the McGill University campus reading, “Tired of anti-white propaganda? It’s time to MAKE CANADA GREAT AGAIN!” The article acknowledged, however, that Canada has an insidious history of far-right activity, specifically the neo-Nazi skinhead movement that began to arise in the 1970s, influenced by the British white power music scene.
Tony McAleer, also interviewed by ICSVE, who was born in England but moved to Canada as a child, was brought into the world of white supremacist violent extremism through the punk skinhead scene. After a childhood marked by rejection and humiliation, Tony says the skinheads “became my best friends. My coping [mechanism] was to befriend the bully, become the bully, because I was not big. They had one thing I didn’t have, that people feared them. They were tough. I was with them to feel safe, attention, acceptance.” Tony eventually became the leader of the Aryan Resistance Movement, based in Vancouver, where he operated a phone line, Canadian Liberty Net, through which he propagated his group’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology. Tony eventually disengaged the movement to focus on raising his children, and slowly became deradicalized through a years-long process of therapy and personal growth. He now helps others to do the same.
Another prominent “former” interviewed by ICSVE, Brad Galloway, was introduced to the culture of white power music through a friend in the 1990s. He went on to establish a Canadian chapter of Volksfront and was an early utilizer of internet chatrooms like Stormfront as a means of recruiting new members. He believes that his involvement with the group, even though he says he did not fully accept all aspects of their ideology, was the result of an addiction to a peer group that gave him a sense of freedom, belonging, and empowerment. Years later, he became disillusioned by the constant infighting between far-right groups and by the many counterexamples to the hatred of minorities he was preaching, including the Jewish doctor who treated him after a fight, without saying a word, while Brad was wearing a swastika-adorned T-shirt. He now promotes compassionate interventions that address the different aspects that contribute to people joining white supremacist groups, including trauma, identity crises, insecure attachment, and toxic masculinity.
Far-right violent extremist groups in Canada span a broad ideological range, including more traditional white supremacist groups (including Canadian chapters and offshoots of American groups) as well as sovereign citizens and some single-issue groups. Finally, involuntary celibates [incels] are often identified as part of the far right, given their misogynistic views and overlap between participation on incel and white supremacist web forums. However, the incel ideology, the “blackpill,” does not have any white supremacist connotations. Canada has experienced a few incel-related attacks, including Alek Minassian’s 2018 Toronto van attack killing 10, and the government deciding in 2020 to charge a minor with a terrorism offense after he fatally stabbed a woman.
How Does the Internet Play a Role in Violent Extremist Radicalization and Recruitment?
Unsurprisingly, given the ubiquity of social media in people’s daily lives and the increasing evidence of terrorists’ adept use of social media for radicalization and recruitment, social media has played a role in Canadian radicalization and recruitment. A 2018 study of Canadians involved in militant jihadist terrorism since 2012 found that for at least 21 of the 32 individuals for whom information on radicalization was available, the Internet played a role in the radicalization process. The authors found that at least half of the subjects who were converts to Islam became radicalized online, and that at least 26 individuals in the sample used the Internet to post support for terrorism or communicate with other violent extremists after they became radicalized. Combining these data, they concluded that “the Internet played a role either during or after the radicalization process of at least 76 percent (n = 39) of the sample.” Ryan Scrivens and Amarasingam (2020) examined far-right extremism on Facebook, finding that those they identified could be categorized as either anti-Islam or “white Canadian pride” groups. Both groups targeted Islam and shared Islamophobic posts, but the latter was more focused on condemning the Canadian government for their stances on immigration more generally, which were supposedly destroying traditional Canadian values, as Josh recounted above.
There is also extensive evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to increased violent extremist radicalization and recruitment online. Not only are people simply spending more time online during the lockdowns, especially young people who might otherwise be in school, but the anxiety regarding public health and the economy has led many to search for some sense of certainty online. Indeed, there is evidence that feelings of personal uncertainty, related to one’s health or financial security, for instance, can increase people’s tendency to identify with a group that provides them with a sense of certainty. This certainty may be provided by conspiracy theories such as those spread by militant jihadist and white supremacist groups alike. Such conspiracy theories and disinformation were accompanied by a slew of hate crimes, especially against Asian-Americans during the early months of the pandemic. In Canada specifically, a large study (n = 644) found that COVID-19 risk perception was similar to that of the United States in that it was highly politically polarized. Despite the fact that no members of the Canadian Parliament were found to be downplaying the virus, as many American legislators did, Canadian conservatives nevertheless viewed the virus as less severe than liberals did. Misperceptions related to a reduced risk perception included conspiracy theories believed by small minorities of Canadians. Moreover, the researchers at Moonshot CVE (2020) found that there was a marked increase in engagement with online extremist content in Canada’s largest cities since the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown. Specifically, weekly searches for violent far-right content increased by an average of 18.5 percent. Such content included podcasts by purveyors of misinformation and conspiracies such as Alex Jones, a Nazi-glorifying documentary entitled “The Greatest Story Never Told,” forums and social networks favored by white supremacists, and high-risk searches such as “how to make a Molotov cocktail” and “how to join Ku Klux Klan.”
It is clear from the recent research that both Canadian militant jihadist and white supremacist violent extremists pose a risk that has yet to be fully understood. Over the next decade, online recruitment and radicalization are likely to become even more of a threat than they have been previously, and such online behavior could translate into violent, in-person crime. Moreover, while the primary militant jihadist threat in Canada, Canadians joining ISIS abroad, appears to have abated with the territorial defeat of the Caliphate, the risk of ISIS resurging remains and is growing. Thus, preventing future waves of Canadian domestic attacks as well as FTFs is paramount.
What are the Future Risks?
Moving forward into a new decade, it is imperative that researchers, practitioners, and policymakers take into account lessons of the past as they make decisions. First, while earlier extremists also used the Internet to recruit and send around their hate propaganda, social media is an increasingly potent tool for violent extremists and terrorists. Individuals can nowadays build trusting, intimate relationships without ever meeting in person, and global connectivity and awareness can make them resonate with the plight of victims thousands of miles away. Used strategically, social media can also be a tool for counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism, but it is clear that the field is years behind the terrorists. Second, security services and other professionals’ underestimation of the violent far-right is apparent and must be remedied. This also needs to include greater understanding of their many links to conspiracy theories, most notably QAnon, which is also undoubtedly being pushed by malignant state actors and which can these days be magnified by social media algorithms. Third, we know that experiences of discrimination and marginalization increase risks of recruitment into violent extremism and this effect is amplified as reciprocal radicalization occurs when opposing groups violently fight and attack one another, accelerating polarities and acts of violence. Fourth, culture can be used for good or for bad. In the case of the far right, hate music coupled with drinking has been used to draw in new recruits, conferring a sense of belonging that comes at a price. In the case of ISIS and al-Qaeda, hijacked and twisted scriptures and revised interpretations of Sunni Islam have been used to draw in new recruits. To adequately counter either of these and redirect potential recruits, one needs to understand the aspects of culture being used to manipulate and draw in new recruits. Fifth, belonging, a feeling of significance, purpose, and dignity are often important vulnerabilities, and they are needs that are met by these groups with promises of family, belonging, purpose and dignity conferred in joining.
With regard to militant jihadist violent extremism, the primary risk for Canada appears to be future waves of FTFs participating in conflicts abroad as they arise, and so-called “lone wolf” attacks called for by these groups to be enacted on Canadian territory. Although returning FTFs currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] may pose some risk either in radicalizing others in prisons or in carrying out acts of violence if they go free, they should ideally have access to proper rehabilitation and reintegration services to preclude either happening and it should be recognized that Canada has not been the target of any attacks committed by returnees. Rather, it appears more likely that returnees are disillusioned and want to simply return home, face justice if appropriate, and pursue normal, low-profile lives. However, ISIS is actively resurging in Syria and Iraq, as well as in other areas where they have established wilaya [provinces]. They continue to post high-quality propaganda content, encouraging their followers to help them rebuild their once-great Caliphate and telling them to enact revenge at home for its downfall and ISIS children held in camps in Syria continue to be at risk for indoctrination.
What Actions Can Be Taken?
With regard to online radicalization and recruitment, broadly speaking, government and non-governmental efforts must parallel the quality and quantity of violent extremist propaganda. Counter and alternative narrative materials must be as emotionally engaging and as credible. In many cases, counter narrative content produced by government entities is not trusted by vulnerable audiences. The Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project is one created by a nonprofit organization that uses actual ISIS insiders to speak out against the group and has been found to be credible and emotionally evocative. The Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project, of which the white supremacist videos presented here are part, aims to do the same, using former white supremacists to denounce their groups and their ideologies. These counter narrative projects, as well as others, also provide concrete actions to take after having watched the videos, specifically to access resources for counseling and off-ramping. These resources and action items are key, as violent extremist groups are successful in radicalizing and recruiting online because they immediately provide potential recruits with concrete steps to take to act on whatever they have learned from their online content. This could range from attending a rally or protest, to conducting an attack at home, to traveling to Syria to join the Caliphate or help to rebuild it. It would also behoove organizations to deploy understanding, skilled professionals who can reach out to vulnerable individuals online and in face-to-face encounters to answer questions and suggest alternative paths to meeting their needs or acceptance, belonging, meaning, and significance.
With regard to the far right, Canada has taken a number of steps recently indicating that the government takes the threat seriously. In 2019, neo-Nazi groups Blood and Honour and Combat 18 were added to Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, which had never before included white supremacist groups. Around the same time, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also identified far-right violent extremism as a national security threat. In 2021, following the Capitol Hill riot, Canada added the Proud Boys to the same list, along with a slew of other white supremacist groups. Designating these groups does not simply symbolize a strong stance against white supremacist violent extremism, however, as Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act allows the government to seize the property and monitor the finances of entities on the list of terrorist organizations. Recent evidence suggests that these actions are necessary: The number of far-right violent extremist groups active in Canada grew by 30 percent between 2015 and 2019 and that the number of reported hate crimes increased by more than 60 percent between 2014 and 2017. These steps that the Canadian government has taken over the past year are steps in the correct direction, but policymakers must be judicious in their decisions to designate various groups as terrorist entities. The advantages of doing so, such as the ability to seize property and monitor finances, are great, but such designations also pose a risk of further alienating already marginalized communities into further endorsement of hate groups. Early countering violent extremism efforts in the wake of 9/11 led to the unfair and unwarranted securitization of Muslim communities, thus pushing them out of the mainstream and making some more vulnerable to terrorist narratives and recruitment. Efforts going forward must be cognizant of these unintended consequences. For instance, the decision to charge a 17-year-old involuntary celibate [incel] with terrorism offenses, though not a full terrorist designation of the incel movement, risked isolating an already isolated community which is largely nonviolent and has yet to be fully investigated with regard to whether it can truly be considered a violent extremist movement.
Lastly, it is important in trying to thwart any type of violent extremism to look both at the push and pull factors with the awareness that violent extremist recruiters promise a sense of belonging, significance, purpose, and dignity alongside adventure and even perhaps a paid job and housing as well as an outlet for internal rage. When society is failing to offer all its citizens pathways to success, a sense of significance, belonging, purpose and dignity we can be sure that violent extremists will step in to fill the gap and good governance is the better answer, of course.
This is an excerpt from a longer article, which can be read here.
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