The other day, I set a Google alert for the term “terrorism” and synchronized it to my Gmail account. Needless to say, my inbox is overflowing.

Reports of terror plots — attempted, conspired, executed or otherwise — are pervasive. Gone are the days when legislatures were lone bodies concerned with the impact of radicalization and countering violent extremism. We, the public, are now party to the dialogue on terrorism, and we are still learning what that means.

For some time now, the debate within government and academic circles, as well as in the legal community, has focused on questions about prevention and understanding the phenomenon of terrorism. Figuring out why an individual who takes up a cause to invoke acts of terrorism requires front-line investigators, courts, all levels of government, and thus the people, to consider three central variables: the history underlying terrorism, the social and political culture informing it, and the psychological makeup of people who execute it.

History as a necessary backdrop

The etymology of the term “terrorism” has its genesis in Assyrian culture. As Jonathan Fine explains, the term “melammu,” which means inspiring fear and terror in one’s enemy, emerged as far back as 612 BCE in Assyrian history. After the Assyrians, some of the first acts of “terror” formally labelled as such were propagated by the Jewish Sicarii sect in a rebellion against Rome in 70 CE.

Ironically, the early use of the word referred to government conduct against the citizenry – sovereign actors instilling the fear of God in the people. In discussing terrorism today, we refer to nonstate actors (dissidents of their own countries and of the global order) who instil fear in populations through violent, orchestrated actions, in order to propagate a message that is often political.

Examples of terrorism can be found in historical and current events. These include the ancient Peloponnesian War, the Crusades, the assassinations of Czars and Kings, the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom, the first and second World Wars (particularly in Nazi Germany), the Basque uprisings in Spain, the Red Brigades in Italy, the genocide of Rwanda, 9/11, the Front de Libération du Québec, Al-Qaeda, Daesh, and Boko Haram.

There are major differences in the reasons underlying the methods of violence, political messages, and the degree of carnage involved. Many of these events are rooted in power struggles over borders, perceived or real socio-economic disparities, and the desire to send a political message to state actors.

Often, historical tension between cultural and/or religious groups incites extreme thinking. For example, in Iraq, historically Shias constituted approximately 60 percent of the population, compared with some 30 percent for Sunnis. In the early 20th century the British mandate favoured the Sunnis. The response of the Shia, particularly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Baathist and a Sunni, was an expression of liberation from years of Sunni-dominated leadership. Al-Qaeda’s presence grew stronger after the Hussein regime was toppled, even though it had no forceful presence in Iraq during the Hussein regime.

The Sunni extremist group, Daesh, is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda — the result of an internal disagreement between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi about how dissidence toward the West should be expressed. These schisms are not unlike those between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes in Rwanda that were incited by imperial favouritism, and ultimately resulted in one of the world’s worst genocides outside of the Holocaust.

It is critical that states understand the cultural and/or religious background in the regions involved before participating in foreign missions. Alienating a particular regional, socio-cultural and religious faction can cause structural dysfunctions at a domestic level and sometimes give rise to terrorism.

Social and political culture as a necessary backdrop

We also need to examine the social and political culture behind terrorism. There is a breadth of literature detailing what incited the Irish Republican Army, or how the French Revolution came about, for example. However, in the current wave of terrorism there are new dimensions, fuelled by the accessibility of information and the way extremist thinking transcends borders.

Today, exchanging and galvanizing a way of thinking, extreme or otherwise, is a click, tweet or private message away. Government officials and policy-makers must gain a better appreciation of why the social and political contexts matter in communities that are ripe ecosystems for terrorism. They must also remain open to learning about social, political beliefs and regional ways of life that inform the social backdrop of extremist thinking. (I deliberately omit the term religious because, in many regions, religion is part and parcel of the social fabric.)

Psychology as a necessary backdrop

We cannot understand terrorism without some awareness of what isolates human beings and what drives steadfast convictions. In other words, we need to understand the psychology behind radicalization, and isolation in particular, to give us a better insight into why people who have no previous affiliation to a specific culture, religion or socio-political belief find solace in being members of a particular cause.

In the criminal context, judges often learn most about the psychological makeup of an offender at the sentencing stage. At a sentencing hearing, courts will typically rely on the use of presentence reports (PSRs) prior to sentencing the offender. PSRs are typically drafted by probation officers who provide assessments of the offender to assist the judge in getting to know the offender better at the sentencing stage. They can be requested by the Crown or the defence, or they can be ordered by the judge to help ensure that the sentence is proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the culpability of the offender. These assessments detail factors such as the offenders’ personal, medical, employment backgrounds; their upbringing and family history; and their state of mind generally and toward the offence(s) and others people.

Before legislating or instituting programs with a view to deradicalization, government must research and understand the degree of depth required in a PSR. This needs to occur before individuals come into contact with the criminal justice system. According to Wagdy Loza, formerly chief psychiatrist for Correctional Services Canada, people engaging in terrorist conduct are not psychopathic or mentally ill but extremely dedicated. That extreme dedication is rooted in a social culture seeking some form of political change. That is why studies from diverse backgrounds, particularly in psychiatry and psychology, ought to be considered in the implementation phases of any deradicalization program or rehabilitation program in the prison system.

Moving forward

The courtroom should not be the only forum where we assess a person’s background from a holistic standpoint. How we legislate with respect to would-be terrorists is also relevant, as is the type of programming we provide. In its 2016 budget, the federal government earmarked approximately $35 million for deradicalization efforts. Recently, the Minister of Public Safety published a report on the threat of terrorism, noting that Public Safety Canada is launching a “national office for community outreach, engagement to pursue research, mobilize resources and help coordinate work at all levels to detect and prevent tragedies before they occur.” It is not clear how this office is being constructed and who is being consulted. Without an understanding of the historical, socio-cultural and psychological motivations driving radical thinking, this mission faces serious hurdles.

Publicly funded services are best employed when they respond to statistical realities. Schools open based on demographic needs. Pension plans are reformed when they need to respond to an aging population (or at least we hope they all do). In the same way, deradicalization centres must respond to the causes associated with radicalization. This will require a range of people with experience in the culture of radicalization, such as political scientists, historians, Imams and theologians, especially those who hail from regions that harbour radicalized thinking. They are all necessary agents in the process of understanding terrorism. Offices like the one described in Budget 2016 will require psychologists who study human behaviour, not because terrorists are ill and require treatment, but because the human psyche is complex.

Organized civilizations are the products of battles to impose a way of living – battles over territorial boundaries, religions or governments. As it has throughout human history, violent extremism today is perceived by its perpetrators as a way to impose beliefs, values, religions, and culture. If we fail to understand these underlying causes in the preventative stages, our responses will be ad-hoc, reactive solutions, rather than proactive endeavours. Worse, if we fail to understand the complex elements that make up radical conduct we risk alienating those people who already feel that history, and the global world order, has left them behind.

Photo: Stacey Newman/


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Reem Zaia is a lawyer and master of laws (LL.M.) graduate student at the University of Toronto. She holds degrees in political science/philosophy and law, and she was a political aide on Parliament Hill for several years. Her graduate work focuses on how to use section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to expose the unconstitutionality of the information-sharing provisions in the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015.

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