We can’t arrest our way out of terrorism
Ten years ago, I was approached by members of Canada’s security establishment to answer a question. They asked me whether I thought that what are commonly called “ethnic or immigrant enclaves” in Canadian cities were places of radicalization and whether the Canadian security establishment should pay attention to those parts of cities in terms of their surveillance activities. That really was the catalyst for my getting into this new area of thinking, which is around the intersection between cultural diversity in Canada and transnational connections that cultural communities have in Canada and their impact on issues of national security.
Lately, I’ve been working with the RCMP locally in my part of Canada, Vancouver and British Columbia more generally, in two elements of what they are trying to do. The first is in the training of officers on issues of counterterrorism and radicalization to violence, and also participating in their very embryonic emerging programs around countering violent extremism.
It’s really important to acknowledge a couple of basic points. The first is that Canada simply lacks sufficient capacity to monitor every radicalized individual. It can’t be done. We don’t have enough officers on our forces to be able to do such a thing. Even throwing a lot more money at the RCMP and CSIS will still never give enough capacity to monitor fully every radicalized individual.
On the second point, although I won’t name the person, I will quote from a senior analyst in the Canadian government who has worked for a long time in security issues. When speaking about the issue of foreign fighters, he made a point that I completely agree with. He said:
We can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem. We can’t identify everyone who is going to be interested in being a foreign fighter. We can’t monitor everyone, and we can’t arrest everyone that is in that category.
That inevitably leads to the issue that we have to bring communities into this equation. We can’t solve this problem by strictly law enforcement measures.
Of course, that poses the question: How do we get the community involved? Let me give you a very quick illustration of this, which happened with the case of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau before he made his attack of October of last year.
For some time, he was living in the Vancouver area and he attended a mosque in the area of Burnaby, a suburban municipality in Vancouver. He really raised concern when he was attending that mosque. People found him a difficult person. They understood that he had radicalized views. They found him kind of frightening and expelled him from the mosque, but they didn’t take the next necessary step. They didn’t tell any authorities about that person or that event.
So he was told to leave the mosque. He was separated from that community, but they didn’t tell the RCMP about it, and of course we know what happened subsequently.
What’s interesting is that since then, members of that particular mosque have understood they made a mistake, and now they are working very closely with the RCMP, and they are involved in officer training of the RCMP. They’re also involved in doing the rounds of other mosques in British Columbia and explaining what to look for, issues of how to recognize extremism. Very importantly, they are also going around to the mosques of British Columbia and explaining to people what the difference is between a conventional interpretation of Islam and a radicalized interpretation of Islam, why the radicalized interpretation is an incorrect interpretation of Islam and how to watch, particularly when young people are perhaps going down that road. Also, it is providing a conduit between the mosques of British Columbia, which are part of their larger association, and the RCMP.
That is about the ounce of prevention and the potential many pounds of cure. Getting the community engaged in that kind of vigorous, forceful way is very important.
Where do we go with this insight? I’d like to make a couple of fundamental points on this, and in order to make those two points I want to make the distinction between hard and soft approaches to security. Hard approaches are the things we commonly think of, including investigations, using the legal code, arrests, incarcerations, et cetera. Soft approaches are around community engagement, outreach by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and so on.
With that distinction in mind, I want to make my last two points. The first is that in Canada, we have not yet had any kind of a real conversation on the mix, the balance between these different tools of security.
I would say for every dollar we are spending on soft security measures, we are probably spending a hundred dollars on the hard security measures. Is that the right ratio? Is that the right way to think about this? If we have to draw the community in, and if we can’t arrest our way out of problem, what is the proper mix of expenditures on soft and hard approaches to security?
The second major point I want to make is that in an ideal world, the mix of hard and soft approaches to security would work in a combinatorial way where each informed the other and where the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.
In the real world, though, the challenge is that execution of hard security measures can undermine the capacity for soft security measures. If, for example, a community feels stigmatized, if they feel they suffer disproportionately from stop and search procedures or if they feel that engaging with authorities will send their kids to prison, these are not going to bring communities to the table. These are not going to be ways of effectively setting up a community engagement strategy and a soft touch to the security side of things.
That’s another conversation we need to have, and I think what we’ve been doing until now is evaluating the various laws and policies we put in place for security from a hard security imagination. We’ve been thinking, will this law help us in terms of the investigation we need to do? Will this law help us in terms of intelligence gathering? Will this law help us in terms of arresting and incarcerating people who do bad things? I don’t argue against that at all. That’s very important. What we haven’t been doing enough is asking if this policy or law will support the community engagement and soft security measures that need to be done as well.
We need to be evaluating our security policies from a soft security lens, as well as from a hard security imagination and lens, because I think we really need both those sets of tools to promote the safety and security of Canada.