Alexandra Zakreski Canada Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Terrorism

The Challenges of Self-Radicalization to Domestic Security

Self-radicalized Islamic terrorists are defined by Dr. Wesley Wark as “individuals who have discovered the allure of terrorism purely on their own, through reading or most likely through visiting online websites […] without connections to an Al Qaeda affiliate overseas.” This particular terrorist profile has increased in frequency with the advent of digital media, as radical Islamic videos can be found on YouTube and the Al Qaeda online magazine Inspire can be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection. Traditional routes to radicalization are also still prevalent as many Western-born terrorists are inspired by radical imams in their local mosques. The recent cases of the Boston bombers and the foiled bombing attempt of the legislature in British Columbia offer evidence that homegrown terror is alive and well in North America.

Inspire is an English language magazine explicitly linked to Al Qaeda that targets Muslim-born readers, or converts to Islam, living in the West who seek to join jihad. The magazine has provided instructions for creating pressure-cooker homemade bombs, which were used by the alleged Boston bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Amanda Korody and John Nuttall, the Canadian suspects in the B.C. bombing attempt, created similar devices although it is unclear what source was used for instruction. While details are still scarce in the Canadian case, the route to radicalization for the Tsarnaev brothers is clearer. In addition to the magazine Inspire, one of the suspects said that he had found inspiration in online sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a former editor of the magazine and an Al Qaeda propagandist.

[captionpix align=”left” theme=”elegant” width=”300″ imgsrc=”” captiontext=”Inspire is an English language magazine with links to Al-Qaeda.”]

The magazine was quick to bless the brothers after their attack, dedicating an entire issue to “the Boston bombing’s damage on the American nation.” A letter from the editor also praised the suspects and warned of further attacks by saying, “the war is yet to cease, it has barely started. Yesterday it was Baghdad, today it is Boston. The question of ‘who and why’ should be kept aside. You should be asking, ‘where is next?’” This sentiment is clearly ominous.

The U.S. government hacked into the publication’s website recently but the disruption was only temporary. The greatest danger of digital incitements to terrorism is that organizations and individuals can easily circumvent government interference with their content by taking up a new server. Because such channels of dissemination are so difficult to dismantle, self-radicalization presents a particularly potent threat to Canadian and American national security. Unlike terrorist cells, internet sources of radical Islam can reproduce with relative ease. While videos can be removed from YouTube and websites can be removed from the Internet, the same content can easily be uploaded again under different usernames and to different website URLs. Furthermore, much of this propagandistic material is protected by the right to freedom of expression and there are legal and ethical barriers to their removal. A U.S. official acknowledged this, stating “there’s a robust debate in the community about where do you draw the line on whether or not you should interfere with or take down certain sites.”

In addition to the obstacles posed by digital media, it is often difficult to determine a profile for individuals who might be drawn to this kind of lone-wolf jihad. This reduces the probability that such individuals will be stopped before they can carry out a plot. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was actually on an FBI watch-list and was questioned for evidence of fundamentalist leanings. He was dismissed despite the fact that his YouTube account was littered with radical Islamic videos.

Cases of self-radicalized individuals have often been diverse in terms of suspect history, inspiration, and strategy. Reports have emerged that Nuttall and Korody, both Canadian-born, were recovering drug-addicts; a quality that would seem to make them fit the pattern of disenfranchised youth who turn to terrorism. Any formal connections between these individuals and Al Qaeda are unclear. Rather, their radicalization seems to stem from fundamentalist media, as a neighbour reported that she heard the pair playing radical Islamic tapes and videos. By contrast, the Tsarnaev brothers were Chechen immigrants. The younger, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was attending the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and though he was struggling in school he seemed to have a promising future. This diversity in background and circumstances illustrates the many different personalities from which self-radicalization can stem. This makes it hard to raise “red flags” that might aid in tracking an individual and stopping an attack. The difficulty in profiling these individuals was cited in a 2010 report as one of the reasons that homegrown terror is the biggest threat to U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world.

At home in Canada, the threat of self-radicalization and homegrown terror is similarly strong and the process of radicalization is described as “idiosyncratic [and] individual”. A recent study by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) reported that “violent Canadian extremists are more likely to be citizens than immigrants [and that] these radicals tend to be relatively young and well-integrated members of society.” A CSIS threat assessment report acknowledged an alarming “upward trend of domestic Islamist extremism” in Canada.

However, there is great potential for success in fighting homegrown terror in traditional “beat-cop” programs. A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail offered a persuasive argument for the importance of on-the-ground community policing. Beat cops patrol a specific area routinely and in doing so build relationships with individuals in that community in an invaluable way. These contacts can raise a red flag of suspicious activity to their officer in a far more efficient and timely manner than sifting through huge amounts of data acquired through surveillance. Widespread government surveillance of citizens is extremely controversial which makes the use of traditional policing strategies especially attractive as they offer a less invasive means of monitoring a community.

The fact that the B.C. bombing plot was foiled is reason to remain hopeful about the future of addressing homegrown terror. Vic Toews, then Minister of Public Safety, emphasized that this victory was the result of close cooperation between police officers and security agencies such as CSIS and Canada Border Services Agency on the investigation. The success of this operation, which was called Project Souvenir, indicates that the tactics used are useful in fighting homegrown terror and that a one-pronged approach simply will not work. Rather, intelligence services will need to employ a variety of strategies that include beat-cop style surveillance and increased communication between senior officials and police officers on the ground. The importance of increased communication cannot be overstated as demonstrated the Boston bombing scenario. While the FBI had received numerous warnings from Russia regarding the elder brother’s, progressive Islamic radicalization and had begun building a file on his activities, none of this information was relayed to the Boston Police Department. In order to effectively fight homegrown terror, an “all hands on deck” approach must be adopted that includes all investigative strategies, from the most sophisticated to the more simplistic.


Alexandra Zakreski
Alexandra just graduated from McGill University, where she pursued a major in Art History (Honours) and a minor in International Development Studies. She is currently doing an internship with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. CJFE is a Canadian non-governmental organization that defends the rights of journalists and promotes free expression around the world, particularly through its role as a clearing house for IFEX (a global network defending and promoting free expression). Alexandra has traveled extensively in Europe and is bilingual. Her research interests include Canadian-US relations, development studies, environmentally sustainable economic growth, and the Middle East. She is presently working as a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada and is planning to attend law school in September 2014.