How do jihadists turn marginalized, angry men into killers?
Nov 15, 2014

The latest war in Iraq returns a coalition of Allied nations to the Middle East – to once again vanquish an evil entity that has positioned itself into the power vacuum that developed as Western troops ended or reduced their various combat and security presences. There is no doubting the legitimacy of this new battle against the latest iteration of extremists who claim to perpetrate barbaric violence in the name of Islam. Free thinking individuals and nations simply cannot stand witness as organized ideological thugs run rampant over local populations and threaten the safety and security of the civilized world.

Canada is once again joining the campaign to contain the latest evil to threaten the values we hold dear. But, the traditional battlefield has continued its shift and one wonders why the coalition of Allied nations has been so slow to react. Are we overly constrained by protocols that served in the past? The appeal and reach of the social networking propaganda is a weapon that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has perfected – and that Western nations have yet to contain. And, just as we need to eliminate the IS threat to civilians in Syria and Iraq, the West must impede the ability of the IS to inspire and recruit through social platforms and ­digital engagements.

Within three days in October, Canada lost two soldiers on our soil to “radicalized” Canadians – young men who were inspired by extreme jihadist ideology. Canada’s capital was terrorized by the second attack. No one in the downtown area was immune to the shock and uncertainty. Throughout that day, and since, many in the security community have been working on the most exhausting of many questions about these attacks, the most obvious of which is: ‘Why’? Some of the reporting that accompanied the brazen attacks was decidedly incorrect, as the media grasped for answers.

Pundits and members of the media – as well as many security experts – were quick to label the Ottawa attacker as a crazed madman. Perhaps; but blaming the possible mental health of the dead attacker is too easy, shallow and convenient an explanation for the his motivations. Diagnosing a mental illness post-mortem and then attributing it as the cause of the attack is too easy and too irresponsible. We can’t pretend mental illness is behind these acts. What we do know, is the attacker who shot Cpl Nathan Cirillo was a drifter, and the Commissioner of the RCMP has found evidence that he was ISIL-inspired – as was the attacker who ran down WO Patrice Vincent a few days earlier.

So, why did this happen? Some observers argue that security on Parliament Hill has been too lenient for too long. From my perch on the walls of Parliament, that sentiment has merit, but the Commons belongs to the people and needs to be accessible and open to the public. Finding the balance between security and accessibility will never be perfected.

While Canada’s foreign policy decisions may have resulted in growing domestic animosity towards government and representatives of Canada’s security services, especially among those who fall into the gaps of our communities, this has always been the case. The glaring truth remains that individuals who commit acts against the state do so for two reasons: ideology or retribution.

We all want to know ‘why’ a lone wolf decided to instill chaos in our capital. But, as angry we are that this occurred, Canadians are equally frustrated by the superficiality of explanations offered up post-mortem.

What we have not considered, as a community of free thinkers, is that we have grossly underestimated the appeal and reach of jihadist propaganda to Canadians (and Americans) who feel any of the above stigmatizations or proclivities. The fact of the matter is, an alternative, values based ideology is being circulated to large communities in the digital space that holds dominion over segments of younger males in Eastern and Western nations alike. The appeal is certainly lost on the intelligence community, and there is no doubt it is increasingly cited as a source of inspiration for attacks at home and abroad.

Although fundamentally illogical, this ideology of violent hatred competes with the capitalist values of Western nations. It must be a compelling narrative if it drives individuals to give up their lives for a belief in something greater than nationhood and citizenry. It is unknown to most of us, and scary to us all. We don’t understand it. We don’t believe it. And we are suffering in providing a compelling counter-narrative because we do not accept its legitimacy as a serious adjuration for the hearts and minds of millions of restless and angry young men.

Instead, Canadians are focusing on the organization of ISIL and their voracious and disgusting acts against the people they are fighting to control. There is no doubt that they are terrorists, and louts and rapists, and that they ‘govern’ by fear and intimidation. There is no doubt that Western nations need to travel to their lands and combat this evil. But our military efforts in Iraq are only part of what needs to be a longer term battle – we need to accept and combat the appeal jihadists hold over millions of dangerous young men around the world, including hundreds of Canadians. It is only through this last, and much more difficult, path that we can better understand the ‘why’.

Canada will always remember Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Let’s also honour them by acknowledging and examining the appeal of the enemy we now fight, or we will never hope to vanquish that force.

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