Not surprisingly, in the wake of the Paris attacks we’ve had all sorts of expert opinions on how to defeat ISIS. The approaches have run the gamut from using non-violent counter-narratives to bombing ISIS strongholds in Syria, as Britain has recently decided to do. It also isn’t surprising that we now have two very distinct camps on this issue. Those in the “non-violent camp” rightly proclaim that bombing will only create more terrorists, where those in the “use of force camp” rightly fear that if left un-checked the ISIS threat will spread and grow.

The problem with all these approaches, however, is that they are only partial solutions at best. A problem as big and complex as terrorism can’t be adequately addressed by a single tactic. This would be naïve and foolish.

While it is true we have no past precedent to base our responses on, we know that with any complex problem from preventing genocide to curbing greenhouse gasses, efforts that are multi-sectoral, multi-level and address both the short and long term factors are required.

Countering radicalization and violent extremism whether overseas or domestically is no different. This is a very complex problem that will require long-term efforts occurring in several different arenas simultaneously by numerous different government and non-governmental actors (e.g., legal, policy, education, policing, intelligence, etc.). Indeed, nothing short of a whole-of-problem approach will suffice.

One of these areas of activity to especially focus on is working with young Canadians in order to take them out of the reach of terrorist recruiters.

A recent U.S. study suggests that it is neo-Nazi and anti-government groups that have inflicted the most damage in the U.S. and not radical Muslims as is the popular perception. Other evidence clearly shows that ISIS ideology inspires would-be terrorists: it offers them an exciting, meaningful purpose to life. We also know that some immigrants struggle, unsuccessfully, to acclimatize to Canadian culture. Some become vulnerable to terrorist recruiters because they lack a sense of connection. By exploiting this vulnerability, ISIS recruiters develop a personal relationship with potential recruits and then allure them with the promise of fame, excitement, and the chance to strike back against those whom they perceive to be the aggressors.

More frightening, perhaps, is how the recent San Bernardino shooting in California brought to light the problem of “self-radicalization” whereby violence can be inspired without having the support and encouragement of an overseas terrorist organization.

Current anti-radicalization strategies which rely on surveillance, reporting, and rather passive attempts to attract would-be terrorists are not enough. Because youth are drawn to the lure of terrorism because it provides an identity and mission in life, we need to meaningfully engage our youth and foster the growth of an identity that values Canadian ideals. Those ideals are pro-peace and against violence, plus they include the toleration and even celebration of differences rather than exclusive self-righteousness. Because youth naturally want excitement we need to engage them in numerous exciting ways to become proud Canadian citizens. Out-reach needs to take an individualized, personal approach that is done via numerous face-to face meetings and encounters. Youth need a chance for quick wins in which they get public recognition, supported by positive peer pressure which promotes good citizenship.

So, instead of relying primarily on increased surveillance and passive outreach to young people, what if we responded to their need for exciting, meaningful lives in a different manner. Why not replace the allure of being a terrorist with the allure of being a peace leader? That is, someone who wishes to “wage peace” in order to build a better world for themselves, their family and their neighbours.

Let’s not harbor any illusions, however: both the need and difficultly of preventing homegrown terrorism are huge. We can, however, help prevent future homegrown terrorism and build stronger communities through modest investments in programs that support and encourage youth to become active, positively-engaged global citizens.


Evan Hoffman, PhD is a Senior Associate at the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation (CIIAN) and a mediator with Concorde Inc.

This is a cross-post originally published on Linkedin

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