OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian law enforcement officials plan to use counseling to help stop would-be jihadists and could even help them find jobs - an effort that has added urgency after Muslim converts killed two soldiers in separate attacks in Canada last week.
The effort is being modeled on Britain’s de-radicalization program, dubbed Prevent, which was implemented after the 2005 London bombings in which four young Britons killed 52 people. Prevent, however, has been widely criticized as ineffective.
Canadian authorities say their program, to be launched by the end of the year, will complement more traditional counter-terrorism efforts by making it easier for police to find extremists and keep them from acting out.
“Historically, efforts for safeguarding Canada’s national security used to be primarily focused on enforcement and disruption,” said Sgt. Greg Cox, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which is spearheading the effort. But the RCMP is now also focusing on ways to counter “the dangerous narrative employed by violent extremist groups,” he said.
The work comes as Canada faces a growing threat from homegrown jihadis: some 130 Canadians have traveled abroad to fight with groups like Islamic State, of whom 80 have returned home, according to intelligence officials.
Law enforcement officials in Canada, the United States and Europe are particularly worried about individuals who are self-radicalized and can go undetected until they launch a so-called “lone wolf” attack.
“It is extremely difficult to detect early signs of radicalization and ultimately determine if the individual may be preparing to launch an attack on any scale,” RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a senate committee this week.
Like in Britain, the Canadian program would establish a network of partners in education, health, social services, religion, and law enforcement, and provide training to them in identifying potential radicals, RCMP’s Cox said in an email.
RCMP said a person at risk of being radicalized could show signs of withdrawing from friends, family, school, or sports, and could start expressing violent or paranoid opinions.
In some cases, those suspects could then be referred for social services like counseling or help finding work. In other cases, they could have their passports revoked, or be investigated for criminal offenses.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who is researching Canadian foreign fighters, said the RCMP effort was important in light of Canada’s policy to bar citizens from joining extremist groups abroad.
He pointed out that both attacks last week were committed by radical Muslim converts whose plans to travel were stymied after their passport applications were either held up or their travel documents confiscated by the authorities.
One of the attackers, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau - who shot an unarmed soldier in Ottawa and stormed into Parliament before he was killed in a shootout - had been struggling with poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness, according to police, acquaintances, and family members.
But Amarsingam said history has shown de-radicalization efforts to be hugely complicated.
“Most of these programs are general enough that they always sound good. But, actually getting down to the details and making it work isn’t easy,” he said, adding that people who have been radicalized often don’t trust those counseling them.
Britain’s Prevent program was overhauled in 2011 after it was found some of its projects unwittingly funded groups that supported extremist ideologies. The effort has more recently been criticized for failing to stop the flow of British fighters joining Islamic state, though its advocates say it has helped in many cases keep people from extremism.
“The U.K. Prevent Program is highly regarded by the international law enforcement community and some of the course content has been adapted to fit the Canadian context,” RCMP’s Cox said, adding that British trainers were teaching Canadian law enforcement how to implement parts of the plan.
It is too early to say how effective a British-influenced plan could be in Canada, given the different profile for extremists between the two countries.
Radicalized individuals in Canada “tend to be educated, and tend not to come impoverished circumstances,” Michael Peirce, a top official at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s main spy agency, told a senate hearing on Monday. This was in contrast to Europe, where radicalized individuals are often poor and uneducated, he said.
Muhammad Robert Heft, a Muslim convert and consultant to the RCMP and the CSIS who runs an Islamic center in Toronto, said the Canadian program should emphasizes teaching the basic tenets of Islam to new converts to replace the “toxic theology” pushed by radical groups through social media.
“Converting to Islam can be overwhelming,” he said. “A lot of times the families disown them. In terms of moral and social support, it is basically not there at all. So they find themselves looking on the Internet.”
He said that the RCMP had asked him to start counseling people on the RCMP’s “high-risk traveler” watchlist starting in November. That watchlist includes 93 people suspected of wanting to travel overseas to join militant groups like Islamic State.
Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal; Writing by Richard Valdmanis, editing by Ross Colvin