The Socialization of Terrorism

John Gilmour · Former member (retired) of Canada's intelligence and national security community · Posted: February 9, 2021

As has been identified in numerous studies and discussions related to terrorism, how it is defined has been something of a challenge. One commentator (Laqueuer) made reference to some 250 different definitions, with different ones being used even within the same agency. As more policy and academic attention was being paid to the issue of terrorism as a result of some high-profile events in the 1970s, there was a recognition that some form of definition was required in order to manage, and ideally predict, terrorist attacks.  In short, how it was defined by individual states was linked to how mitigation measures and strategies to counter it would be developed in kind. However, terrorism as a distinct field of study was not accorded its own discipline. Instead, it has been examined by a variety of different schools of thought – legal, organizational, psychological, economic, rational thought, ethics, etc., each with their own viewpoints and agendas. Hence, the lack of a consensus of what constitutes ‘terrorism’ continues to this day.

That said, a point of common consensus is that there is one dominant factor that serves as a driver for the creation, motivation and objectives of terrorist groups, and that is politics, Whether your cause is ethno-nationalist, the removal of occupying forces, to create a caliphate, or to tear down the exploiting imperialistic capitalists systems and replace them with a socialist utopia, ultimately the goal is political. You have a grievance, you have an ideology, and you think you can change things for the better. Sometimes the crowd is with you, sometimes not. Some want rapid change, others play the long game, Since the French Revolution to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, (and arguably even that), it has been ever thus.

As well, and especially since the events of 9/11, religious –based extremism and violence has also been widely referenced as a driver for terrorism. The connection of religion to terrorism goes back to the Zealots, Assassins and Thugis of old. And both Al-Qaeda and ISIL  used the narrative that Muslims were under attack from Crusaders and Jews to great effect when it came to recruiting both fighters and lone-wolf operatives. But if you consider Hezbollah (defence against Israel, serving as a parallel government within Lebanon, an armed proxy for Iran), the PLO family of groups (the re-establishment of a homeland for Palestinians) and even Al-Qaeda (removal of western forces from the Middle East, the establishment of a caliphate, the destruction of Israel, the removal of ‘apostate’ regimes), all of that seems pretty political when all is said and done, when the religious rhetoric is peeled away. But, giving one the benefit of a doubt, let’s agree that there is some merit to the view that politics, sometimes wrapped in religion, most often serves as the driver behind the creation of terrorist groups and  support for their cause amongst their supporters.

I suggest, however, that things get a little trickier when it comes to assigning the epithet ‘terrorist’ to certain categories of violence that have been generally associated with the term ‘domestic terrorism’.   Much of the discussion around domestic terrorism in North America has of course been focused on the extreme right, the events of January 6, 2021 serving as the most recent example as suggested by politicos and the media. But while there is certainly confusion within the right-wing community about what its ultimate objectives are, for the most part it is easy to identify some form of desired political outcome. Xenophobes want the government to turn back what they see as cultural genocide by eliminate immigration by non-whites. Others want to create their own ‘pure‘ country carved out of existing territories. Some want to overturn the accepted order of government because it’s run by certain elites whose agendas are seen as being out of touch with the common folk, or perceived as being too intrusive in their day-to-day lives. In each case, they are seeking a change to the status quo, which is political in nature. The application of violence against the government or broader society as a means of doing so has obvious national security implications.

So how do other forms of violence within the domestic terrorism rubric- hate crimes (which is certainly linked to elements of right-wing extremism), homophobia, gender-misogynistic issues, or the incel community-  warrant being characterized as ‘terrorism’ when the links to traditional political motivations are hard to ascertain?  While any form of unsanctioned violence is typically and ultimately criminal in nature, and communities noted above are adopting many attributes from the terrorist play-book when it comes to the use of social media and leaderless cells, characterizing a member of the incel or homophobic community with the same terrorist brush as Hezbollah seems both awkward and counterintuitive. Any proposed links to national security serve to make the definitional issue that much more complex.  This issue arose in something of a similar fashion when what would normally appear to be random shooters (e.g. the Orlando nightclub shootings of 2016 that targeted gays and Hispanics) with no obvious or ongoing connection to organized terrorist groups, had an email or two on their computers supporting Al-Qaeda or ISIL. It was a stretch in these cases to classify these incidents as terrorist attacks in the traditional sense.

The violence of the sort noted above seems to derive, I suggest, more from individual prejudices, psychologies and experiences than other more traditional drivers of terrorism. Individual perceptions or filters of external circumstances or events, that may be considered intrinsically skewed from a ‘rationale’ perspective, seem to drive certain individuals to strike out at targeted communities in a final spasm of violence, without any connection to a broader agenda, other than perhaps sending a message to those same communities as a consequence of the ‘act’.  And of course the individuality associated with such acts of violence makes preventative strategies almost impossible to employ. They are therefore responded to after the fact, more in line with traditional law-enforcement strategies as opposed to the preventative frameworks associated with counter-terrorism. The same could be said, however, for cases of ‘lone-wolf’ terrorist attacks.  

So if these forms of violence are to be considered by governments as terrorism for policy and program purposes, is there a need to consider a third type of descriptor that best captures the range of drivers behind domestic terrorism, those that don’t fit neatly into the political or religious drivers traditionally associated with terrorism? Would it be appropriate to classify these forms of violence as “social–based terrorism”? Rather than being politically disenfranchised in some manner, it is suggested individuals that elect to engage in this sort of violence are instead socially disenfranchised, unwilling to accept or tolerate progressive changes to the fabric of society, and who see themselves as being marginalized or disadvantaged, or their moral compasses compromised, as a result.  Somewhere along the line, an internal switch is flipped and an individual chooses violence against a certain community - women, gays, a certain ethnic or religious community, a ‘”Stacey” or “Chad” in the case of incels, as the only available recourse or outlet for their internal demons.

Counter-terrorism ‘traditionalists’ are having a hard time accepting socially-driven violence as terrorism. Instead, they see attacks as one-off incidents devoid of any long-term objective or agenda as is true terrorism, perpetrated by disturbed individuals, and best treated by law-enforcement outside the realm of national security. The ‘progressives’, for lack of a better word, elect to focus more on the act as opposed to the motivation.  While acknowledging social terrorism acts are mostly apolitical, they nevertheless involve the targeting of innocents, ideally resulting in mass casualties, are purposive, and typically involve some degree of planning.  It is hoped the concept of social-based terrorism, in addition to traditionally accepted political and religious drivers, is something that both sides of the equation are prepared to entertain. As was the case in the 1970s, when definitional issues were first considered, it is a means to better understand, manage and mitigate the threat it poses to society.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

John Gilmour joins the PDI team after a thirty-seven year career in the federal government in positions of growing responsibility. His initial professional experience was with Transport Canada and the management of Canada’s major international airports. This  included serving as project manager and analyst for airport security programs. This led to a two-year assignment to the Security and Intelligence (Operations) section of the Privy Council office as a senior policy analyst, in support of the office of the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister (NSA). 

From there John joined the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), where he served in a variety of branches, most recently as the Head-Strategic Planning and Operational Analysis with the Service’s Counter Terrorism Division.  Although retiring in 2018 from the Service, John continues to be retained as a senior advisor for that  unit.

John has a BA from Carleton University (Ottawa), and a Masters and Ph.D from the War Studies Program of the Royal Military College of Canada (Kingston).

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