Mubin Shaikh covers radicalization, extremism, violent radicalization, disengagement and de-radicalization.
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
April 4, 2017 ▪ London, Ontario
Recent threats of violent extremism have had two main effects on our congregation, one negative and one positive.
The negative effect is that these threats have diverted volunteer and financial resources from our core mission. Our congregation exists to help our members celebrate weddings, mourn loved ones, observe Jewish holidays, and fulfill commandments like visiting the sick and alleviating the suffering of the poor. These activities require committed volunteer leadership and money.
In response to the threats of violence, we have had to focus instead on security. Rather than board meetings to plan for Purim and Passover, we have had to hold meetings about responding to various security contingencies. Rather than budgeting for better food at Shabbat Kiddush or fancier decorations at Purim, we have had to divert money to security upgrades. Rather than spend every available classroom minute on teaching our young people about Jewish customs or current events in Israel, class time has been spent reassuring students that they are safe. Our synagogue, like every synagogue I know, has limited volunteer and financial resources, so it is discouraging to have to divert these resources from our purpose because of the threat of violence.
On a positive note, we have strengthened our bonds with the larger community. The Jewish community in Canada is far from the only minority community to be imperiled in recent months. The threats to the safety of others has opened our eyes to how our peace and security is connected to that of Muslims, First Nations, Hindus, LBGTQ+, and every other minority in Canada. Thus, we are spending more time on interfaith activities, work that is enriching in its own right.
On March 22nd, 60 Days of PVE interviewed Ryans Scrivens about his research on Stormfront.org, and the threat of right-wing extremism in Canada.
60 Days of PVE: What challenges did police officers express regarding right-wing extremism in your research interviews?
Ryan Scrivens: For them, a big thing was they just didn’t really have a sense of what was going on external to their own communities. Often they thought they were dealing with a localized problem, for example, maybe a group like Hammerskins. Police officers thought they had a problem working in community with a small group of Hammerskins when in fact there was a broader problem. I think the big thing for them was that they just didn’t really know, or perhaps pay attention to what was going on in a wider context.
They didn’t really talk a lot about the challenges of policing right-wing extremism. Our interest was in how they policed right-wing extremism in general. What we found was that they weren’t focusing on it at the time we did these interviews, which we started in 2012/2013. I would argue now they are a little more cognizant of what is going on in their communities with the regards to the far-right.
There are notable exceptions. Québec was doing a good job, as well as Alberta, and BC. There are others, however, that didn’t think far-right extremism was a threat in their communities or broader national context.
60 Days of PVE: So, would say their impressions of the current threat of right-wing extremism have changed?
Ryan Scrivens: I think it had to change.
We noticed after wrapping up our study in 2015 and publishing the first piece in 2016, that right-wing extremism was gaining media attention. I think that since the media have been focusing a lot more of their efforts on the far-right and right-wing extremism movement in Canada that police officers now see this threat as a public concern.
When we started doing this work right-wing extremism wasn’t on the agenda of policy makers, law enforcement officials, or academics. The focus was, and I still think it largely is, on violent Islamists. Due to this, perceptions of terrorism or extremism were equated to Muslims. For law enforcement officials, and not just them, there was a narrow conception of the threat of extremism in Canada. Particular groups that would come to mind for academics, such as Hammerskins or Blood & Honour, weren’t perceived to be anything more than a three man wrecking crew, or losers without a cause. But like I said before, there were some law enforcement officials that were doing a good job. The BC hate crime unit deserve an honourable mention.
60 Days of PVE: Can you tell us a bit about your research on Stormfront.org?
Ryan Scrivens: I’m working on Stormfront for my dissertation. What I am doing right now is more macro-level, not digging in from a qualitative micro-level perspective. We are developing machine learning tools to identify radical users or radical content, and we can use it on any web forum that we want. But right now, using it on Stormfront Canada. Amongst other things, we are trying to see what the trends are.
We use keyword analysis to try to identify topics of interests – we use a tool called Techware analysis to measure users’ opinions on these keywords- are their reactions positive or negative? Another thing we’re doing is tracking users’ trajectories over time, which on average, could imply to some extent radical trajectory i.e. to determine if peoples’ discussions are becoming more radical.
In terms of the discussions, it is very typical. They are very much targeted towards groups of people, particularly the Black, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities.
Really, in many ways, Stormfront is the hub of the movement. It is a virtual community in which like-minded individuals can come together and share their ideas, typically free from anti-extremists. It’s a place where people find a sense of identity around right-wing issues that perhaps they couldn’t discuss or have this particular identity in the “real world.” It is an interesting and important place for academics to continue to investigate.
I’ve heard some people suggest that extremists are no longer using online discussion forums. But I would argue, and some of my close colleagues who are very well-known in the field, would argue suggest otherwise. Fine, violent Islamists probably don’t use discussion forums as much, but right-wing extremists are still using them time in and time out. Their presence on Stormfront continues to flourish. It is one of the oldest websites, and not only one of the oldest white nationalist or white supremacist sites, but one of oldest websites since inception of the mainstream internet. And like I said, its membership has continued to grow.
Right now, there’s about 12 or 13 million messages, and the threads are continuously growing. It is an important avenue for academics to look at, whether it is an in-depth qualitative, or thematic content analysis, or work that we are doing using Stormfront as a test bed for machine learning.
We’re doing this on Stormfront, but I think this should be continuously looked at by academics. Considering how powerful it is, there really hasn’t been that much work done on it. Especially as of late, only a couple pieces have come out that are very anecdotal and only scratch the surface. We need to dig deeper into it.
60 Days of PVE: Some have suggested that allowing right-wing groups to post in forums alleviates tensions and could stop the commission of violent attacks. Do you think this is true?
Ryan Scrivens: I do.
You can’t suppress these people necessarily, that’s when they are going to continue to build resentment. I mean, I obviously don’t agree with what they say online. But they need an outlet to vent, they need somewhere where they can share their ideas with others.
What happens if we try to shutdown these sites ? They just go underground again, to the dark web, or create another web forum. And I don’t think the idea of shutting down the website will deter any of their activity. It isn’t going to fix the root of the problem.
I think there are alternatives, Moonshot CVE and Jigsaw are trying to develop tools and technology that counter messages, websites, and web forums. For example, let’s say I am a right wing-extremist, and I search on the web for white power music. If I click on the link, instead of leading me to white power music, Jigsaw will open another webpage trying to counter the message of the music.
I think that those kinds of efforts are better than shutting down a site because that doesn’t deter people at all. What is interesting about Stormfront is you can’t really shut it down. The reason the site has been around so long is because they know where they sit, what free speech is and what it isn’t. They also have heavy, heavy moderators on the site.
Let’s say someone goes on Stormfront and posts, “I hate black people.” That isn’t likely to stay up there. A moderator edits it, or he or she deletes that message, or he or she bans the person from the forum. So what happens is that users are well aware of the rules, and that the moderators adhere to the rules. Otherwise the website gets shut down. Typically, you’ll find that although the sentiment is not nice at all, most times you don’t find the more hateful words. So, bottom line, I don’t think Stormfront can even legally be shut down.
60 Days of PVE: Does recruiting takes place on websites such as Stormfront.org, and how does it compare with recruitment offline?
Ryan Scrivens: It does happen, but research is showing that time and time again there isn’t a disconnection between the online and offline realm. I have worked very closely with former right-wing extremists whose job it was to recruit members, and it was and is a combination of both.
I don’t think a typical person will go online, and all of a sudden become radicalized. It doesn’t really work like that. They have to know somebody offline first, or maybe online. They are most likely going to connect with this person offline in some capacity as well.
Stormfront, is used to recruit, but it is not the only way in which they recruit. It is part of the process of recruitment. One of the formers that I worked with, for example, said that a very popular way to recruit people is to meet face-to-face, and to try and gain their trust in one way, shape, or form. People are brought into the far-right movement by people that they know, they’re not just coming out of nowhere. Often, skinheads for example, will get to know individuals offline and talk with them online, so that is how the recruitment process continues.
To answer your question in short, StormFront is used to recruit, for sure, 100%. It is not the only one. There are sites such as Vanguard News, the Hammerskins forum, and Blood & Honour forum to name a few. It should be noted though, that Stormfront is the main hub of those forums.
60 Days of PVE: Would you say there are any parallels between the radical right and radical Islamist activity on public domains and discussion forums?
Ryan Scrivens: It is hard to say, I have done some work on radical Islam as well. I would not call myself an expert by any means, but there are definitely parallels.
I think the difference between the far-right and radical Islam is that they are using different outlets. Radical Islamists typically, and I’m speaking in general terms, aren’t using forums anymore. They are using Telegram, Twitter, and/or Facebook. The far-right does too, but it seems like the far-right adhere to the old traditional forms of online communication, which are discussion forums. I think there are differences in terms of that.
But I can’t speak more to that, as I haven’t studied it enough in detail.
60 Days of PVE: Coming back to the tool you’ve been developing, what is its exact purpose? Will it be assisting law enforcement in the future, or is it purely academic?
Ryan Scrivens: It really is a combination of both. We do work with the RCMP, but it is not fully developed in terms of giving it over to them. I am not generally interested in that line of work.
It started off as a meaningful way to analyze big data. It started with what we called “The Challenge.” These groups of computer scientists had a challenge online for anyone who wanted to try it. They gave people 1 million messages to analyze and try to find the most infectious radicalized users, posts, sub forums, threads, etc. and try and develop new way of analyzing big data. It could be content analysis, social network analysis, or any other methods.
We found this pretty interesting since not much work done in this area, particularly at the time. We found no work using machine-learning tools to understand how extremists use the internet before this piece was published in 2015. They weren’t focusing on users specifically or finding radical users, so we found this is something we could potentially do. Let’s think of meaningful way to analyze a million messages, because what’s happening now, as I’m sure you are well aware, is information is growing online and manual analysis is no longer effective. So we have to think of new ways to analyze big data.
I think eventually it will get to the point where it is effective for law enforcement officials. And if we consider going down this route, we could frame it as a tool that officials can use to identify warning signs. So if it is tracking users activity over time, for example, and it’s seeing that a person’s sentiments are getting more negative on the discussions around Black or around Jewish communities, and law enforcement officials could have this information, and perhaps intervene if needed.
by Rabbi Michael Goldstein Executive Director, Congregation Machzikei Hadas
In the early hours of Thursday November 17, 2016, our members arrived at synagogue for the morning prayers to find racist graffiti spray painted in the outer walls of our building. These were messages of deep hate and violence, and it created feelings of fear amongst our congregants. Of course it was no surprise that there are individuals in the world who espouse that kind of hate, but it was shocking to consider that someone who felt so strongly had been physically present on our grounds and took steps to act on that hatred. Nonetheless, morning services carried on as scheduled, as did all other operations of the synagogue. Police were notified of the crime, and they arrived quickly to engage in their investigation. Within a few hours the graffiti was cleaned up, and on the surface it appeared as if nothing had happened.
For our congregants, however, the markings of this incident on their psyche did not go away so quickly. Having this act of hate perpetrated on our premises created a sense of vulnerability and fear. For many of us, this is the place where we bring our children every week for Shabbat services, and it was unsettling to think that this hateful criminal or criminals had been on these very premises bringing their hateful intentions into reality. And with the perpetrator(s) still at large, we all felt very much at risk.
It was in this context that we decided to invite Mayor Watson and Chief of Police Bordeleau to speak at our synagogue on Saturday morning following Shabbat services. This would be an opportunity for our congregants to hear from these civic leaders about the status of the investigation, and about their commitment to keeping our community safe. For a variety of reasons this modest idea quickly blossomed into something much greater, with MPs, MPPs, Premier Wynne, and many other religious leaders coming to the synagogue to show their support. We were also joined by the leaders of other houses of worship that had also been victimized by this hate. But most importantly, we were joined by close to 1000 citizens of Ottawa who came to show their solidarity and support.
Starting off the program, Rabbi Bulka stepped to the podium and declared “Welcome to the real Ottawa!” The crowd rose to their feet in applause, and from that moment on the feeling of warmth, support, and love was felt in a palpable way. The impact on our congregation of that display of love from our broader community was immense. In the 45 minutes of that short program we reversed all the fear and vulnerability, and had it replaced with love and support. It was a morning of great healing, and reaffirmed for everyone there that there is a much more love in the world, and in our city, than there is hate.
To the individual who perpetrated this crime, I would offer him support and love. He is clearly misguided, and on a path of hate that is leading his life in a destructive direction. But if he had been present on that Saturday morning in November he would have experience what we all experienced – that the world really is a good place, that people really are good people, and that the joy of friendship and love far surpasses the temporary satisfaction he achieved from his hate.
by Rebecca Wallace, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Queen’s University, Kingston ON.
When it comes to coverage of war in the international community, news media can play an important role in both reflecting and shaping public opinion towards conflicts and those seeking refuge from them. Since the outbreak of war in 2011, broadcasts regarding the Syrian refugee crisis have flooded Canadian news channels with depictions of chaos and depravity, inciting considerable public debate regarding Canada’s role in the conflict, particularly pertaining to intervention, foreign aid, and resettlement efforts. Stereotypical representations of violence and threats regarding the “other” have the capacity to inform and reproduce public attitudes toward Syrian refugees among the Canadian public.
by Lorne L. Dawson, Professor, Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo & Director, Canadian Network for Research On Terrorism, Security, and Society
In seeking to explain instances of jihadist terrorism, like the horrendous attack on Westminster Bridge and the British Parliament on 22 March 2017, there is still a strong tendency to revert, at least implicitly, to one of three overly convenient scenarios, and each these explanatory scenarios tends to reduce, or even dismiss, the role of religion in the instigation of these terrorist acts. For many observers the perpetrator is simply crazy, and hence his religious views do not matter. For others he is engaged in a calculated act of political extremism, of protest against the political policies of the government, and hence his religious justifications are quite secondary. While for some others, the opposite is true: his actions, they assert, are the direct manifestation of the perverse teachings of Islam. The public, however, is largely unsympathetic to this view and tends to respond by denying that Islam, and religion in general, had anything to do with inspiring such acts. Islam is a religion of peace, and to say otherwise, is false. These quick reactions are not mutually exclusive, but they are by no means compatible either. Lay and scholarly accounts of what happened, often shift rather indiscriminately between these popular options.
by Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, Director, Institute of Intergovernmental Relations & Associate Professor, Political Studies, Queen’s University
We are used to seeing murder and mayhem in the news. News is not filled with the mundane aspects of life, but focuses on the unusual events that attract attention. In addition, there is a negativity bias in news that emphasizes disaster, crime, depravity, and other frightening aspects of humanity. It is not the abnormally good news that occupies newspaper pages and Twitter feeds, but the bad.
Imam Mohamad Jebara, PhD, serves as Chief Imam and Resident Scholar at the Cordova Spiritual Education Center
Imam Mohamad Jebara is also an author, poet, athlete, reformer, and inline skater. In September 2014, as the “Cycling Cleric”, Imam Jebara became the first cleric in history to cycle and roller-blade for health, from Ottawa to Quebec City. To find out more about Imam Jebara, check out http://www.facebook.com/imammohamadjebara.
by James O. Ellis III – Project Lead for the Canadian Incident Database (CIDB)
Right-wing extremism is a serious problem that hasn’t been taken seriously in Canada. There has been little in the way of national level policy and policing in this area. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s 2012 Domestic Threat Environment in Canada report opines: “Such ideologies are spreading in Europe and the United States, but in Canada, they still remain on the societal fringe. The majority of individuals involved in the milieu in Canada hold strong racist and anti-immigration views, but do not overly propose serious acts of violence.” The CSIS webpage states: “Right-wing extremism has not been as significant a problem in Canada in recent years. Those who hold such extremist views have tended to be isolated and ineffective figures.” An Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) Threat Assessment released in January 2017 offered little insight into domestic extremist groups and suggested that there was “no indication that right wing extremists pose a threat to migrants and in particular, recently arrived Syrian refugees.”
Last month, 60 Days of PVE sat down with Imam Jebara to discuss radicalization and countering violent extremism. In this entry, 60 Days asked Dr. Jebara what makes a person most vulnerable to radicalization and why. Below is his insightful response on the importance of balance and healing.