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Preventing ideologically-motivated terrorism should be the RCMP's #1 counter-terrorism priority
Globe and Mail op ed
This oped originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on 9 June 2023. This is a slightly different version (without the G&M edits). You can find the original version here. Ignore the headline on the G&M version - I don’t get to write that.
On June 6th, a landmark ruling was made in a Toronto murder case: a young man who killed one woman and injured another three years ago was found guilty of terrorism. The man admitted that he’d been motivated to commit these acts of violence by the “Incel” movement. This movement is a loose collection of people, primarily men, who interact online and share frustrations about a lack of access to sex, relationships, women, and social status. The judge in the case found that the man’s actions met the definition of terrorist activity under the Criminal Code. While the judge has yet to release his reasons, this attack is likely a case of ideologically-motivated violent extremism (which, along with political or religious motivations, is one of the three possible terrorist motivations in the Criminal Code).
To date, Canada’s terrorism laws have been disproportionately applied to one particular kind of violence -- that motivated by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. This violence is often referred to as religiously-motivated, although there are political and ideological components to this violence. This selective application of our terrorism laws is a problem because, as I argued in these pages three years ago, other types of violence, including misogynistic and racially-motivated violence, have been getting a free pass in Canada, despite being responsible for more than 50 deaths in Canada and the United States in recent years -- far more than other forms of terrorism. These attacks have been categorized primarily as hate crimes, rather than part of a broader political movement intended to re-shape Canadian society through violence.
Some have argued that this type of violence doesn’t rise to the level of terrorism, and that it should be treated like a hate crime because it is disorganized or small-scale, or because they fail to see how this violence is an effort to intimidate a segment of the public. This myopic view fails to acknowledge that many different segments of society can be targeted by extremist violence
Our terrorism laws are intended to do two things: the first is to prevent terrorism, while the second is to signal that violence committed for political, ideological or religious reasons is more serious than other forms of violence. Applying our terrorism laws (or by adding terrorism enhancements to a murder charge) to Incel-motivated violence, Canadians now know that this type of violence will be dealt with using all of our counter-terrorism tools, and will be treated as a national security threat.
These counter-terrorism tools include an entire system designed to detect and disrupt terrorist activity. This ranges from monitoring chat groups to using financial intelligence (following the money) to identify individuals who might be preparing to conduct an attack. These tools were largely developed to combat structured, organized terrorist activity. But the Incel movement, and many other ideologically-motivated violent extremist groups and movements, are anything but. They largely exist online, rarely interact in person, and conduct low-cost, and low-complexity attacks life stabbing attacks or vehicular attacks. As a result, we need to re-think how we apply these tools, and adapt them to the new reality of terrorism.
Part of this adaptation is having our law enforcement, security services, and yes, the general public, understand that this type of violence is terrorism, and should be treated seriously. We need better detection and triaging of people who might be radicalizing in Incel forums (or other platforms catering to anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, and other forms of extremism). We also need better interventions that seek to divert at-risk individuals up-stream -- in the early stages of contemplating an attack, rather than after the fact. Twenty years of counter-terrorism has taught us that there are many interventions that can divert people away from committing violence; but it has also taught us that in some cases, the only diversion is arrest and incarceration.
Tackling ideologically-motivated violence, like that perpetrated in Toronto, will require that we apply all the lessons that we’ve learned from twenty years of counter-terrorism in Canada, from applying financial indicators to detect pre-attack behaviours, to designing better interventions when people are in the early stages of radicalization. After 9/11, we expected our law enforcement and security services to rise to the challenge of combatting global terrorism. With a shifting threat, we must demand that they do so again. We should expect that our law enforcement, security service, and Canadians in general treat ideologically-motivated violence as the serious threat that it is, and that they do everything they can to prevent this type of violence before it occurs.