or canadian scholar lorne dawson, it isn’t the massacre at
the Bataclan theatre in Paris, the slaughter at Pulse nightclub
in Orlando or the murderous truck attacks in Nice and Berlin
that best illustrates the dangers and difficulties of dealing with
radicalized extremists. Rather, it is a failed attack in May 2015
in Garland, Texas, when two U.S.-born men attempted to storm
a conference where cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad
were being exhibited.
One of the perpetrators, Nadir Hamid Soofi, had a Pakistani
father, while the other, Elton Simpson, was an African-Ameri-can man who had recently converted to Islam and become radicalized. The two died in a hail of bullets from a SWAT team
before they could kill anyone.
Dr. Dawson, a professor of sociology, legal studies and religious studies at the University of Waterloo, is a pioneer in the study of homegrown
terrorism. He had been following Mr. Simpson on Twitter and, like others,
received Mr. Simpson’s tweet alerting followers that he was leaving to
commit the attack and pledging allegiance to the terrorist group ISIS.
What struck Dr. Dawson most was the outpouring of grief for Mr.
Simpson from his followers on social media after the failed attack. “People
were remembering what a great guy he was,” says Dr. Dawson. “It was like
a high school football team paying homage to its quarterback who’d been
killed in a car crash. It had a very personal, supportive and caring tone; it
wasn’t religious rhetoric.” For Dr. Dawson, these online eulogies speak volumes about the highly social nature of radicalized networks and the daunting challenges that authorities face in trying to curb and contain them.
“They can’t be suppressed,” he says. “Yes, these people are talking
about jihad and violence. But they are also talking about their cats and
dogs and kids. They are like neighbours who are massively engaged in
this internet community that provides them with identity and meaning
in their lives.”
Dr. Dawson is one of the small but growing number of academics in
Canada who are looking at how to prevent radicalization and violent ex-
tremism at home and abroad. Connected through a handful of academic
networks and government-sponsored security groups and programs, they
are an eclectic array of experts from a variety of disciplines at a small
number of Canadian universities.
Their work forms the pieces in a global puzzle that is slowly being
assembled to provide a better understanding of the inner workings of rad-
icalized extremist groups and how they’re formed. These groups include
religiously motivated Muslim jihadists, but also those who adhere to oth-
er extremist ideologies which the Canadian Security Intelligence Service
(CSIS) says pose “serious threats” to our national security.
“The threat is diverse and dynamic and may not look the same each
year,” says Jez Littlewood, an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he teaches
courses on intelligence, terrorism, and chemical and biological weapons.
Dr. Littlewood is currently working on a project that deals with terrorist
financing through money laundering, illicit trafficking and extortion. One
of three assistant professors at the school doing radicalization and count-er-terrorism-related research, Dr. Littlewood is also the associate director,
security, of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security
and Society, or TSAS.
Co-founded in 2012 by Dr. Dawson, who is its director, and Daniel
Hiebert, a University of British Columbia geography professor and policy
expert in immigration and integration, TSAS is funded through a partnership grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
and a contribution agreement with Public Safety Canada. Its goal is to
foster collaboration between the roughly 200 Canadian and international
academics who are conducting research aimed at understanding the complex relationship between cultural diversity, human rights and national
According to Dr. Littlewood, the current security challenge for many
Western nations is trying to identify and track, and in some cases intercept, self-radicalized extremists eager to go abroad or who are already
abroad and may return home. “We’re looking at the full spectrum of
counter-terrorism and terrorist prevention strategies, from planning and
procurement to recruiting and funding,” he says.
in recent years, much of the funding for research carried out
by members of TSAS had come from the Kanishka Project.
Created by the former Conservative government in 2011 to help
Canadian researchers find ways to understand and counter terrorism, the
five-year, $10-million program expired in early 2016.
Last August, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters
he would revive the Kanishka Project under a new name and with a
new focus on de-radicalization. That shift is partly in response to what
some see as the eventual military destruction of the Islamic caliphate