The truck attack on a mosque two weeks ago in Finsbury Park, London, represented two disturbing recent trends in terrorism. First, the manner of attack: There have been six major truck attacks in Western nations since December of last year—Nice, the Berlin Christmas Market, London Bridge, Westminster, Stockholm, and Finsbury Park. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are scrambling to find an answer to these kinds of attacks. Second, the profiles of the terrorists: The perpetrators have largely been either citizens or permanent residents from within the societies they attack.
Increasingly, the danger to a community or a country comes from inside rather than outside its borders. The solution favored by far right politicians and their supporters worldwide is to mitigate the risk of attack by preventing the movement and settlement of Muslims in western nations. However, most terrorism experts agree that this does not address the problem and is in many ways counter-productive.
The key point is that the point of radicalization increasingly occurs inside the country of attack, rather than in a foreign warzone. At the same time, viewing Muslim communities primarily as a threat encourages the use of hardline counterterrorism strategies that drive mutual suspicion and limit partnership. Thus, while conventional law enforcement and counterterrorism activities are vital, governments must also commit the resources necessary to strengthen engagement with diaspora communities, address the root cause of homegrown terror, and integrate foreign communities.
The first step in an effective countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy is to develop a detailed and nuanced understanding of the relevant communities. Building on a research project completed for Public Safety Canada—which examined the impact of overseas conflicts on Syrian, Afghan, Somali, and Tamil communities in Canada—we were able to identify key insights about the country’s diaspora communities.
First, a generational divide in many of these communities prevents youth from participating in community leadership, which can lead to disillusionment and isolation. One Afghan youth in the Public Safety study said that “You have to be traditional to an extent. You can’t be too Western. You’re not supposed to be super religious, but you can’t not be religious either…There are many barriers for youth.”
Second, foreign conflicts rarely play a central role in radicalization. Instead, psychological and socioeconomic factors such as depression, poverty, feelings of hopelessness, and mistrust of local institutions are key drivers of radicalization. These are the same factors that tend to spur youth into gang membership.
Third, most diaspora leaders do not believe that radicalization is the most pressing issue in their communities. They instead see systemic discrimination as a driver of psychological and socioeconomic problems, which in turn lead to radicalization.
“Hard” security approaches that focus strictly on law enforcement and counterterrorism are unlikely to address these three factors, particularly because the study found significant distrust of government security agencies and local law enforcement in diaspora communities. Community leaders had the sense that police were only visible in their communities when they were making arrests.
The most promising CVE approaches appreciate that there is much more social capital and resilience in these communities than is often assumed. This can take various forms, from faith-based networks, to community activism, to charitable organizations. Indeed, research has shown that “NGOs, especially within Muslim communities, are increasingly self-initiating in this field and developing their own CVE measures, even if they do not identify them as such.” Essentially, the thinking needs to shift from the “diaspora as threat” mindset and toward a “diaspora as partners” strategy.
In Canada, law enforcement approaches are being paired with an attempt to engage with diaspora communities. The recently-launched Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence is emblematic of the government’s broader CVE strategy, which combines research, social engagement, and law enforcement.
The first lesson of the Canadian model is that the government has an important role to play in supporting academic and policy research. For instance, the Kanishka Project, a $10 million, five-year program which focused on researching terrorism-related issues affecting Canada, has funded over 70 projects pertaining to CVE, online activity of radicalized individuals, and supporting the needs of terror victims. The Canadian Incident Database cataloged terrorism and violent extremism events with a Canadian connection and made that data open to the public for use by researchers. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service launched an academic outreach program in 2008, which engaged with think tanks, universities, and private sector partners to expand their knowledge of terrorism-related issues.
A second lesson is that the government must support engagement and dialogue. The Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security is an advisory body of 15 Canadians from diverse communities which meets three times a year to engage the government on issues related to national security. The roundtable also created several outreach programs which aim to connect national security professionals and youth to create a dialogue between both parties.
A final lesson is that law enforcement approaches must be balanced and attempt to foster engagement and mutual understanding. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have instituted their own National Security Awareness and Community Outreach program, whose mission it is to partner with local community organizations to “build mutual trust, enhance understanding of shared concerns, and to identify solutions together.”
Serious attempts to address violent extremism begin by accepting the reality that future attacks are as likely to come from within societies as abroad. Diaspora communities can be a country’s greatest asset in combating violent extremism. Strengthening the social capital of these communities is the most promising and cost-effective means to counter the threat of radicalization. This requires a serious commitment to research, dialogue, and law enforcement strategies that promote engagement instead of confrontation.
Geoff Burt is the Executive Director of the Centre for Security Governance, a Canadian think tank specializing in international security and justice issues, and one of the authors of “Exploring the Impacts of Conflicts Abroad on Diaspora Communities in Canada.” Matt Cohen is a Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance.