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Early intervention? Why Montreal has an anti-radicalization center

Montreal is the latest city in Canada to try to spot vulnerable people at risk of radicalization before they potentially commit a terror attack. The US government is reportedly mulling a similar program.

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    A woman wearing a niqab participates in a solidarity march in Toronto on Nov. 20.
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In the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris, Montreal’s mayor asked parents who were worried about their children being radicalized to call someone — but not the police.

“You're watching the news and you see your son, your daughter going through something, and being totally disconnected from the world,” Mayor Denis Coderre said last month. “What are you going to do about it? Now you have a center. You have a phone call.”

At the other end of that call is the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence. The idea is to spot people who could be radicalized and rehabilitate them before they fly to Syria or plot an attack at home, and it's an approach that's already gained currency in Canada and Europe, and may yet have traction in the United States. 

Still, proponents here admit it’s a tough sell for a jittery public and for Canadian Muslims wary of state surveillance.

"There's a very set mentality of 'let's be tough on crime,'" says Jocelyn Bélanger, a psychology professor at the University of Quebec who helped design the center. "To change people's hearts and minds, you need a soft approach. I know it's not popular, but we need it."

‘People are worried’

From the sixth floor of a downtown government building, Herman Okomba-Deparice leads Montreal’s fight against terrorism alongside a team of 10 social workers. While the center’s physical space opened in November, a toll-free hotline has been ringing every few hours since March.

“When you have someone who is radicalizing towards violence, it's not police who spot them first. It’s people close to them,” says Dr. Okomba-Deparice. “They see the changes, not the police.”

Of roughly 550 calls received, center staff have deemed 100 cases worthy of a response. That’s when psychologists, job finders, housing officials and religious leaders meet with the young person involved, at their home or in their community, and offer support.

The center is grounded in the belief that that radical groups prey on people who are actively seeking belonging and meaning, particularly after traumatic events like a job loss or family crisis. They start abandoning friends, and reshape their identity around a cause.

“The question is how can you harness the power of their significance quest, and how can you channel it into something positive,” said Dr. Bélanger. She gives the example of linking impassioned young people with political campaigns.

Okomba-Deparice says the center focuses on acting before people cross into violence. In one case, he spoke to a mother who caught her son surfing jihadist websites. Because the boy had looked up instructions for explosives and covertly applied for a passport, it was one of 10 cases where the center involved the police.

But in most cases, it’s a young person dabbling in an extremist ideology because their life is falling apart.

“People are worried. But when they call us, they know that we're not the police; we're an arms-length organization,” says Okomba-Deparice. “We must find a balance between the security approach and the prevention approach. We need both.”

Channeling extremism

Since 2005, Britain has launched 800 pre-criminal police interventions through its Channel program, which aims to mitigate everything from “over-identification with a group or ideology” to perceptions of an outside threat that justifies violence. Channel uses 22 “vulnerability factors” identified in convicted terrorists. 

Police end the voluntary intervention once the person no longer shows these signs. They also arrest anyone who commits a terrorism offence.

While British officials say the interventions prevent much more expensive terrorism investigations, they don’t publish success rates, and some who completed the program were later convicted of terrorism offenses.

Some Muslim groups quit partnering with UK police after learning they were using Channel interventions to gather evidence on terrorism suspects.

Despite these concerns, Toronto and Calgary police have both launched Channel spinoffs. Montreal’s approach, in which police play a background role, echoes the Berlin-based Exit, a group that began by helping Germans leave neo-Nazi groups and since 2012 has expanded its remit to violent Islamist movements. 

Channel and Exit were both showcased at a White House anti-extremism summit in February. In August, an unnamed FBI source told the Wall Street Journal that a program similar to Channel is in the works. The FBI did not respond to a request from The Christian Science Monitor for comment.

Cautious optimism

In Montreal, Muslims are watching the anti-radicalization program closely. 

In the first five months of this year, police investigated 23 young Montrealers for allegedly joining, or attempting to join, terrorist groups like the Islamic State, including 10 arrested together at the airport despite only knowing each others’ online aliases.

“It was a very, very difficult time for the community,” said Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum. “It’s still difficult now.”

Last year two Canadian men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed soldiers in Ottawa and rural Quebec. Police across Canada subsequently observed an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. 

Montreal’s anti-radicalization center is careful to not link Muslims with extremism. Its website only mentions terrorism in passing and references neo-Nazi terrorists and environmentalists who bomb labs in addition to Islamist radicals.

“It is important to show this center serves all communities, and doesn't target any community,” says Mr. Majzoub. He hopes the center will also prevent anti-Muslim extremism, like a recent mosque firebombing. 

“The police have shown a lot of compassion and understanding. Still, we’re very cautious about the details.”

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