Counterterrorism strategy: Take the long view

Michael Zekulin teaches political science at the University of Calgary.

If we were asked whether Canada’s current counterterrorism strategy toward Islamic State is working, on the surface the answer would be “yes”. We would point to the fact that the recent arrests in Montreal unfolded as we had hoped they would: Investigators identified, monitored and detained radicalized individuals before they could travel abroad.

We could also highlight that no would-be Canadian jihadis have successfully departed recently, nor has there been an increase in the number of identifiable plots or disruptions of imminent attacks. Coupled with Thursday’s announcement that the federal government will invest additional resources to assist the RCMP and Canadian Border Services Agency to combat terrorism, we appear to be on the right path.

This line of thinking would be accurate if we equate the threat posed by IS to a 100-metre sprint. But the reality is that this threat is better understood as a marathon, suggesting that a greater distance remains ahead. Accepting this premise allows us to reassess Canada’s current IS strategy from a more realistic time frame.

The connection between IS, the terrorist group that is still operating (and once again expanding over the past several days), and the homegrown threat is a simple one: Some young Canadians are receptive to the message, ideas and values that IS espouses. As they become increasingly seduced or persuaded by these messages, some may use this as a justification to attempt to travel abroad and join IS in the so-called caliphate, or take up arms against their own society.

We have neither defeated nor degraded IS. At best, we have contained them, physically, from expanding and acquiring more territory. We have not and cannot contain the ideas, especially in our current technological age. Over the past several months, we have witnessed their ideology spread, offshoots of IS have emerged in Libya and Yemen and they are establishing a presence in additional countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

As long as IS exists, their message will continue to spread. This has the potential to create additional numbers of young Canadians with whom their message might resonate. Several months ago, I wrote that Canada’s counterterrorism strategy needed to address two separate but interconnected aspects in order to meet the threat posed by IS. These included measures to deal with the imminent threat posed by the current cohort of radicalized Canadians and a counter-radicalization strategy to prevent or at least minimize the next generation of radicalized young Canadians.

IS is selling a product – themselves and their vision of what the world should look like. A counter-radicalization strategy is based on challenging the messages espoused by the group and its supporters. We need to develop our message, identify the most credible messengers and the most efficient and effective way to distribute it. This will at least begin to counter IS’s efforts. We recognize that this approach will not deter every individual. However, as our messages circulate and gain momentum, it will become increasingly difficult for IS’s perverted ideas to find fertile minds. The end goal is to minimize the number of individuals who might adopt the ideas and become a threat in the future.

We cannot be lulled into a false sense of security by our recent successes. IS’s ideas pose the real threat and they continue to circulate, incubate and entrench themselves in our society. Our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have done an admirable job, but we need to ask ourselves whether our current strategy is sustainable. Financially, our government has limited resources; it is not realistic to continuously increase our investigative capacity every few months. We run the risk of falling into a never-ending cycle where those we identify and disrupt are quickly replaced by others. Eventually, some individuals or incidents will slip through the cracks. In the context of the current threat, that means very bad things will happen.

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