An expert on young Canadians who’ve gone to fight with groups like ISIS says it’s a mistake to lump all these radicalized Canadians into the same category. Over 100 Canadians have left Canada to join the ranks of ISIS and al-Qaida, but they don’t all fit into the same mould, says Amarnath Amarasingam.
On March 18, Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University’s Resilience Research Centre and investigator of Canadian foreign fighters, delivered a lecture at the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre to explain the mentality and impact of radicalized Canadians abroad.
“People always want to come up with one explanation of some kind … manic depression, high school dropout, homelessness,” he said.
“Don’t treat all these fighters as some kind of monolithic entity, they’re not the same fighter.” Amarasingam highlighted the diverse demographics of some of them.
Salman Ashrafi from Calgary had a wife, a stable job, and plans to pursue an MBA — all of which he abandoned to join ISIS in Syria. He allegedly carried out a suicide bombing, killing himself and 19 others.
Mohamud Mohamed Mohamud, from Hamilton, was a 20-year-old fashion model when he decided to join ISIS.
Former Ryerson student Mohammed Ali was also recently reported to be involved in the conflict.
Amarasingam says according to some jihadi commentators, “when outsiders invade the land of Muslims, it becomes an individual obligation called Fard al-Ayn, to step up and defend the global Muslim community.”
That means migrating to wage jihad is as essential as fasting and praying five times a day for supporters. “It’s like if you stub your toe and your body reacts,” Amarasingam said.
Otherwise, he said people who refuse to be mujahedeens (the term for those engaged in jihad) are dubbed hypocrites who stay in the West and conform to democracy at the expense of their Muslim practices.
“‘If you can’t migrate, pack your bags and come to Syria, sharpen your knives,’ that was the message,” Amarasingam said, referring to a video by foreign fighter John Maguire who urged others to attack Canadians.
Amarasingam said social media, specifically Twitter, has helped inspire terrorism abroad and contributed to the rise of “keyboard jihadists,” the equivalent of jihad “fan boys.”
“They are people who are just online — bloggers, reporters — who sometimes claim they’re in Syria but actually just in their mom’s basement in Scarborough,” he said. “They become a pretend crew … who take pictures of Syria from other people and post them on their own wall.”
The media reports 13 Canadian foreign fighter deaths since 2014, and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) says there are approximately 80 returnees the government must decide how to deal with.
“It very much depends on when they left, which group they fought with and why they are returning,” said Amarasingam. “If they’re coming back and continue to see Canada as an enemy, it’s one thing. But if they’re coming back disillusioned … they left thinking the religious utopia wasn’t really what they found … do we allow them to return?”
The Canadian government has strengthened counterterrorism laws, including passport revocation, full surveillance and making it an offence to leave the country to engage in terrorist activities.
But there are still Canadians who want to leave to be a foreign fighter.
“I haven’t seen it dying down,” said Amarasingam.
“What I have seen is the government getting better at solving it.”