For publication 17 November 2015
ALERT: Terrorist Attacks in Paris: North American Implications for Criminal Radicalization
As you are aware, we are currently in a Critical Period from the ongoing aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent air strikes by France against several targets in Syria. These series of Traumatic Events are elevating the anxiety of many Canadians and Americans as the possibility of “imitators”, as understood in the Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA) Model. Furthermore organized and committed offenders may be considering action. The attacks are somewhat “innovative” as there were multiple targets at the same time and very broad site selection so as to suggest ‘you are not safe anywhere’: thus the essence of terrorism.
From a general North American perspective, events in war torn countries do not draw the same concern by citizens because that is what is expected (much like cities that fail to pay attention to evolving gang crises because it is the ‘bad guys killing the bad guys’ – It doesn’t hit home until “innocent victims” are killed in the crossfire – then it is viewed as a problem). It would appear from the rhetoric of some Canadians and the actions of others (Mosque set on fire in Ontario) that the attacks in France are viewed as ‘too close to home’ and the heightened anxiety is increasing symptom development of many individuals. The problem is “the higher the anxiety the greater the symptom development” and the risk of triggering or intensifying already existing criminal radicalization in some is very high.
As anger towards so-called Islamic Extremist groups builds in North America, Canadian and American Muslim Communities are too often left to bear the crushing weight of responsibility for acts they did not commit. One growing area of concern is that “empty vessels” who are already depressed and suicidal and looking to kill for a cause, prior to being killed or killing themselves, are drawn to this high profile world issue looking for a way to ‘go out with a bang’. This is not new to us: many of the same types of individuals who were shooting up their schools in the aftermath of Columbine are the same types that are going, or attempting to go, overseas to join the fight or act out here at home. Now we have evolving empty vessels in some cases searching out the Muslim community and other communities/organizations to find a place to fit. Without training in VTRA many community and religious leaders struggle with how to help a troubled individual and even if they worry about criminal radicalization, who can they turn to for support? As the Muslim Community has been targeted themselves we are asking too much to simply say “report and we (professionals) will handle it”. We need to actively look for ways to include Islamic Schools and Muslim leaders in our Community Protocols for VTRA.
The Muslim Community Behind Closed Doors
Muslim community leaders have spoken outright against every terrorist act since 9/11 and continue to do so. This is done to ensure that the general public doesn’t overgeneralize a few incidents and make broad assumptions about the religion as a whole. What remains to be unknown to the public are what conversations and activities are taking place amongst leaders and activists in the Muslim community behind closed doors? It is in these internal dialogues where one can begin to fully understand the impact terrorism has had on everyone; including Muslims.
These internal dialogues are shifting the narrative from ‘talk’ to ‘action’. More recently, seminars, sermons, workshops, conferences, and counselling programs have been developed and funded solely by the Muslim community to prevent criminal radicalization. In some areas, strong partnerships have been developed between community leaders, government, and law enforcement agencies. According to many leaders, what seems to still need improvement is a multi-agency and comprehensive approach to preventing criminal racialization. Such an approach requires strong working alliances, an increase in opportunities to discuss risk-enhancers and risk-reducers, and an agreed upon framework to work from. However, without trust, very little communication and sustainability is possible.
In order to develop trust in the Muslim community, understanding is paramount. In order to better understand the reality of the Muslim community, better data must be collected which ultimately leads to better assessments and interventions. For example, many have commented on ‘radical online messaging’ as an important issue to understand, and certainly it is; however, who is susceptible to such messaging, and why, requires more examination. This detailed analysis from an insider perspective is a key focus of our work and one that includes rather than excludes authentic authors. It is also heavily supported and endorsed by an enormous amount of community leaders, organizations, and members. We are sharing this simply to support the idea that when you put a group of people together and allow them to dialogue as equals, understanding increases and trust quickly follows.
In the Muslim community, it is quite apparent that battling the negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims resulting from high profile terrorism is a daunting task with serious implications. As the community prepares to support thousands of displaced refugees, having to also deal with public relations issues is an added stress that has and can continue to cause burnout in so many dedicated volunteers. As such, front line workers and authentic leaders have been advocating for a more practical and less political approach to solving this problem. Simply put, community leaders believe, and research supports, that if someone who is unaware of the Muslim reality meets a Muslim, they are less likely to have negative attitudes towards them or their faith. This is leading to more Open-Houses in Mosques and other information sessions to offer counter-narratives and counter-examples to combat media generalizations. These are great places to start building trust which can lead to a wide stock of social capital as both insiders and outsiders work together to prevent a shared problem, leading to shared success, and ultimately a better shared society.
1) The school-police relationship is still the foundation for Stage I VTRA and both should be formally connecting with each other to review the VTRA protocol/process. Mental Health, Child Protection, Probation, and other related partners also need to be brought into the loop as to the contents of this communication.
2) Under-reaction is still the biggest problem we have where even VTRA trained professionals, for a variety of reasons, do not activate the protocol.
3) Play close attention to VTRA cases where the individual being assessed has inordinate knowledge of violent incidents worldwide and/or the possession of radical promotional literature.
4) High profile violence does not cause people to go from zero (no risk) to sixty (extreme risk) – instead it simply “intensifies pre-existing symptoms”.
5) The age, gender and socio-economic backgrounds of the perpetrators of these many violent acts is so varied that most high-risk and “primed” for violence individuals can find at least one attack they can identify with (identification with the aggressors). Therefore keep in mind that the more abled a troubled individual can identify with a perpetrator the more it will increase their overall level of risk.
6) The “target selection” has also been very broad from targeted violence of people personally known to the perpetrators to “types of targets” (not personally known but viewed as justifiable targets) such as multiple death homicides of police officers in Moncton, New Brunswick and Las Vegas, Nevada to completely “random target selection” cases. *Therefore “Target Selection” and “Site Selection” are broad and so multiagency collaboration needs to be intensified to meet the current social dynamics.
7) All VTRA cases that come to your attention need to include a comprehensive review of that individuals’ online behaviour and digital footprint as that is where we find the most blatant pre-incident signs and indicators. The role that social media plays as both a risk enhancer to existing ideology as well as a prominent contributing source of VTRA data has never been stronger. An accurate VTRA risk determination cannot be made without reviewing the entirety of their digital baseline.
8) We need to “strategically” intensify our connections with our highest risk children and youth (Empty Vessels) during this time as no one can engage in a serious act of violence unless they feel “justified” in attacking that target or type of target. The power of positive, meaningful human connection is one of the best violence prevention strategies we can easily employ.
Notwithstanding the current climate in North America, the commitment to formalized multi-agency collaboration for Violence Threat Risk Assessment and the development and use VTRA Protocols has set us apart as a leading Nation. Our level of commitment to learn and act together has already made a significant impact across this country, please remain vigilant.
Kevin Cameron, Executive Director, Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response
Theresa Campbell, President, Safer Schools Together
Mahdi J. Qasqas, PhD Candidate, President and Founder of 3OWN | Muslim Youth and Family Services,
Provisional Psychologist and Certified Counsellor