October 23, 2014
Just like school shooters and right-wing survivalists, people attracted to Islamic terrorism tend to be disaffected loners with a chip on their shoulder against society, experts say.
But what makes the radicalization of young Muslims an increasingly worrisome trend is the ability of groups like Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) — a radical Islamist group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq — to reach out to such troubled individuals.
“Jihadism is a high-profile brand,” said Rex Brynen, a professor of political science at McGill University.
“We do have a probability that ISIL will appeal to certain people who are angry with the world,” he said.
Media reports suggest Martin “Ahmed” Couture Rouleau, the 25-year-old suspect who killed a Canadian soldier in a hit-and-run and injured another before being gunned down by provincial police in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu Monday, had a series of personal problems that might have been factors in his conversion to Islam and apparent support for Muslim extremists, Brynen said.
“I think in some cases and possibly in the case of the guy in St-Jean, there’s something that’s occurring prior to the religious conversion, that is to say, they’re going through personal stress, they may have mental-health issues,” he said.
“In his case, his friends all report dramatic changes in behaviour, he was separated from his partner, he was going through family court with regard to his child, he had reverses in business and so the religious conversion may be part of a broader search for meaning or anchors or something else,” Brynen added.
Rouleau may have “found in the kind of cultish appeal of jihadist groups answers to everything, moral certainty and ultimately a way of striking out at a world that he seems to have been quite upset with,” he said.
Unlike the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, such isolated homegrown extremists are similar to other people who join cults, he said.
But while cults have always existed, groups like ISIL pose a new threat because of their ability to connect with potential supporters through social media, he said.
“I think that radicalization is a concern,” Brynen said.
“We have a particular problem in that ISIL is a very glossy, very popular brand that has a lot of momentum right now. I think it is much more effective at social media and outreach than Al Qaida was.
“We’re in an era of social media Internet usage where it’s very easy to find like-minded people online and connect up with them,” he said.
Chedly Belkhodja, principal of Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs, compared people attracted to Islamic extremism to disaffected individuals who become skinheads or join nativist or fascist movements.
Radical Islamic groups can appeal both to lonely lost souls and Muslims in Western countries who feel excluded and marginalized, he said.
“A lot of young people can be an easy prey,” he said.
Tarek Younis, a PhD candidate in psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal who conducted a study on identity development among young Muslims, said support for extremist ideologies is higher among members of minorities who feel excluded.
He interviewed 30 Muslims age 18 to 25 in Montreal, Berlin and Copenhagen. In Montreal, where the sense of exclusion was lowest, subjects expressed no sympathy with Islamic extremism, whereas in the other two cities, where the sense of exclusion was higher, some subjects did express support for extremism.
Brynen said intercultural dialogue is key to fighting radicalization because groups that feel included and valued are more likely to report deviant behaviour to the authorities.
“Multiculturalism has been very, very helpful in reducing the risk of terrorism,” he said.
He added that while radicalization is cause for concern, the issue should not be overblown, noting that the risks of being run over for jaywalking or being hit by lightening are far greater than the likelihood of being a victim of homegrown terrorism.
As of early 2014, the federal government was aware of more than 130 people with Canadian connections who were suspected of terrorist activities abroad.
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