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Terrorism research urgently needed in Canada

But, despite its rising importance, the field suffers from growing pains, say academics.


When a video surfaced online in early December featuring an Ottawa man in Syria inciting Canadian Muslims to join the fight for the extremist group Islamic State, University of Waterloo professor Lorne Dawson spent the day fielding media calls. But that was nothing compared to the 25-plus interviews Dr. Dawson granted in the days following the shootings at the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill in October. That attack, plus another by a lone jihadist in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, has clearly sparked an interest in Canadian expertise on terrorism, said Dr. Dawson, a professor of sociology, legal studies and religious studies at U of Waterloo and co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society or TSAS. For Dr. Dawson, this demand for Canadian experts in the field has also highlighted how few there actually are.

“The reason I’m in this field at all is the very fact that in Canada, we really lag behind other major Western nations in developing the scholarly capacity to deal with stories related to terrorism and security,” he said. Until 2008 or so, Dr. Dawson had spent the bulk of his career researching new religious movements and cults. He explains that he made the transition into work on religious extremism, radicalization and terrorism after observing that many experts speaking publicly on the topic were former converts, ex-police officers, anti-terror activists or international researchers with no interest in the particularities of the Canadian context.

According to Dr. Dawson, the most urgent need in the emerging field of terrorism studies is for basic qualitative data on radicalization: Why are a number of young Canadians converting to Islam? Why do some of these young people transition into violent radicals, while others don’t? What role do social media and online “inspirational” materials play in this radicalization?

To this list, Marc Tyrrell, a social anthropologist and senior research fellow with the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University, adds a need to look at the history of terrorism – a line of inquiry that he says will contribute valuable insights into today’s conflicts.

To respond to this need for information, in 2012 Dr. Dawson co-founded TSAS, a partnership between U of Waterloo, the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The network consists of a 10-member executive and some 130 research affiliates who work in such diverse subjects as law, criminology, geography, psychology, sociology, religious studies, political science, immigration and geopolitical mobility. Dr. Dawson said it is the only institutionalized research network specifically dedicated to the field of terrorism studies in Canada today. In spite of this, he worries TSAS may be at risk of losing its funding. Though the researchers have received money from the Kanishka Project (a federal fund for terrorism-related research), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Canadian Safety and Security Program, they’ve not yet secured long-term funding for their work.

Rather than depend on government contracts alone for funds (Dr. Dawson, for his part, has been hired for his expertise by Defence Research and Development Canada, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), the executive of TSAS insists on securing primary funding from a source that’s at arm’s length from the federal government. The point is to send a clear message that TSAS is an independent, non-partisan research network aimed at developing good data rather than supporting government policy, said Dr. Dawson.

“This is primary research that impacts the existence of Canada as a nation,” said Carleton’s Dr. Tyrrell. “It impacts the existence of universities as independent research areas where scholars are free to proceed where the data leads us.”

Although the field has grown in popularity among students and some academics here – Dr. Tyrrell said the number of scholars has grown to about 200 from 20 in 2001 – researchers still face many hurdles. As an example, Dr. Dawson points to a two-year TSAS project involving researchers interviewing Canadian foreign fighters (Canadians who have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq, and in past conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Sri Lanka). It has encountered a delay of nearly 10 months while waiting for ministerial approval (the project is partially funded by Public Safety Canada) and a green light from the research ethics boards at U of Waterloo, UBC and Dalhousie.

Dr. Dawson said that among the boards’ concerns are the team’s ability to ensure the anonymity of research subjects who engage in, or are aware of, criminal activity that could threaten national security; and the personal safety of both the researchers and their interviewees.

“People run away with theoretical concerns and then they start imposing all kinds of restrictions on the research,” Dr. Dawson said. “If I were a criminologist studying cheque forgers, these restrictions wouldn’t exist, even though the level of risk is the same or comparable.”

Meanwhile, at a December meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, witnesses were questioned about the radicalization of students on campus. Two of those witnesses were Jeremy Littlewood, assistant professor with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and Craig Forcese, associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa. The chair of the committee, Conservative Senator for Yukon Daniel Lang, asked the professors whether radicalization is taking place at universities and, assuming it is, what could universities do to help monitor the situation.

According to the testimony, neither professor could say with certainty that radicalization on campus was a concern. Dr. Littlewood added, however, that while universities may have a role to play in countering violent extremism, he did not think that they should be “at the forefront of policing Canadian society.” Dr. Forcese agreed: “As a former university administrator, I would not rush to assume that universities are equipped at present with the expertise and the resources to put in place an anti-radicalization agenda,” he said. “Universities are supposed to foster open debate and dialogue,” and anything that infringes on that “obviously raises sensitivities.” Dr. Forcese said there must be “an adequate balance struck between potentially invasive investigations and the mandate of the university.”

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  1. Madi / September 6, 2015 at 18:03

    Unfortunately, I disagree with this. I sent a proposal to Canadian Universities regarding a genuine anti terrorism strategy and instead of them looking at the quality of the idea and the approach they asked me for GRE and other qualifications.

    I already published researches and won awards, and I am talking about a genuine research idea that contributes to the Canadian national security but they did not care. Universities are controlled by their governments policies and their funders but definitely not by the public interests.

  2. Amin Kanji / September 24, 2020 at 20:13

    I have been doing field work on the subject of Terrorism and am well read in the subject. I have read on the subject in various universities of Alberta and Ontario and have also sought feedback from collegial ties at the university of Boston and elswhere.

    I have taken a generational and systems oriented a approach on the subject to discover the factors which may be key in influencing the desire to engage on applying the methods of applying the acts of ‘sudden Violence’ or which are referred to as acts of ‘Terror’.

    Over the period of my research, i have steadily developed a theoretical model which is structural and generational and which has its roots in not just actions of war, or the politics of history and land, but more so in the formation of generational personalities of hate.

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