A Canadian murderer, and myths about countering radicalization

The Canadian man who shot dead a soldier at the country's war memorial in Ottawa yesterday is a classic 'lone wolf' – and a reason why state-led efforts to counter 'radicalization' and jihadi recruiters won't amount to much.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/AP
Ottawa Police officers comb the area in front of the National War Memorial near Parliament Hill on Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 in Ottawa. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on Wednesday, at the National War Memorial before setting his sights on Parliament Hill. Bibeau was killed just feet from where hundreds of MPs were meeting for their weekly caucus meetings.

A loner, a petty criminal, a man who allegedly rambled to a friend that the "devil" was after him and, ultimately, a killer.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who murdered Cpl. Nathan Cirrilo, a Canadian reservist standing guard at Canada's National War Memorial in Ottawa yesterday, was a "lone wolf" terrorist from central casting. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed when he then stormed the nearby Canadian parliament.

Yesterday's attack – which followed Monday's murder by a recent convert to Islam of a Canadian soldier in Quebec – has added fuel to the debate over online recruitment by groups like the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS. There are calls to counter the threat of a new generation of Islamist militants attracted and inspired by the jihadi movement's beheading of helpless captives, massacres of whole villages for daring to defy it, and promise of creating a global new age of Islamic Law. 

But the notion that would-be killers for this cause can be dissuaded by counter-propaganda like the State Department's "Think Again and Turn Away" Twitter account, which employs snark and sarcasm to declaw jihadi propaganda, is fanciful. 

The vast majority of Muslims, or those thinking of converting, are already disgusted by groups like ISIS. So the space that's being contested is one around the fringe of people attracted to ultra-violence, to binary views of the world, and yearning to make their mark by misguided acts of defiance and, yes, terrorism against an establishment they blame from their problems. Entreaties from that same establishment to behave are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Zehaf-Bibeau, according to an acquaintance, was ejected by the elders of a mosque in Burnaby, British Columbia because of his "erratic" behavior. This mirrors the path of another criminal who was seeking meaning in his life – Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two immigrant brothers who carried out the bombing of the Boston marathon in 2013. Mr. Tsarnaev, who has since been implicated in a 2011 triple homicide that targeted a drug-dealing friend of his, was once ejected from his neighborhood mosque. This came after he shouted in the middle of a service that the mosque's preacher was an "infidel" for praising Martin Luther King, Jr.

So far, the evidence doesn't support the claim that ISIS excels at luring young Westerners into its ranks, as the Monitor reported yesterday in reference to three Denver teens detained in Germany. Instead, the most that can be said, is that young people seeking an identity, and a cause to lend meaning to their lives, are occasionally attracted to join jihadi groups like ISIS. 

The CIA estimates that 2,000 "Westerners" have gone to fight with ISIS in Syria; roughly 100 are American. But what's that in percentage terms? The US has about 2.5 million Muslims. The numbers look only a little worse for Britain and France, from where the CIA estimates 500 and 700 people, respectively, have gone to Syria to join ISIS. There are at least 3 million Muslims in France, about 2.7 million Muslims in Britain. Not a sterling recruitment drive. 

As for the smattering of young female converts that have joined up, or sought to join up, that's not entirely surprising either. Many young women and men feel lost and insecure. A few are susceptible to promises of meaning and fulfillment from the likes of Charles Manson and other cult leaders, or from jihadis; most come to regret having bought into these promises. Some are out and out unstable, and not even that young.

In 2010, a middle-aged American woman, dubbed Jihad Jane, was arrested for conspiring online with jihadis to plan the murder of a Swedish cartoonist. She too, was described as having been "radicalized" by "sophisticated" online recruitment efforts (long before the war began in Syria). What received less attention was her past of childhood sexual abuse, prostitution, and drug addiction. 

Martin Couture-Rouleau, the Islamic convert who murdered Canadian Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on Monday, underwent a rapid change in the past 18 months, when he converted. Initially, based on his online postings, he appeared to be a "typical and fairly boring convert," according to a Canadian researcher quoted in Canada's National Post; by May he had moved towards "speaking in the language of jihad."

Worried that he might turn to violence, his family called the authorities, and he was prevented from traveling to Turkey and his passport seized in July. What followed was a sustained effort involving the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, his family, and the preacher at his mosque, in a bid to turn him off the path he was on. The last such meeting occurred just 11 days before he murdered Vincent, in which he convinced the RCMP that he was no longer a threat.

There are simply some people who aren't reachable. And in open societies, with ready access to guns, they will occasionally act on their beliefs. This could be their version of Islam or, as with Justin Borque, who murdered three Mounties in June, an apparent combination of anti-authoritarianism and paranoia.

In the case of what I'll shorthand as radical Islam, declarations that it isn't "really" Islam, whether from Barack Obama or Muslim preachers, can in fact prove counterproductive, because it locates the faith as something immutable, whose absolute essence can be known. Once you've conceded that, the argument is just over whose version is the "real" one. Al Qaeda, and similar groups like ISIS, are delighted to play that game.

For the Wahabbi strain of Islam that gave birth to ISIS, there is only one kind of Islam – their kind. All others are apostates and pretenders. But turning that illogic around on ISIS – "no, you're the pretenders" – is going to fall on deaf ears when it comes to many people who have self-selected into that community. 

In fact, "Islam" is a faith that has certain fundamental beliefs among all its adherents (the Five Pillars) but in practice contains multitudes, based on culture, and which parts of the Quran and the Hadith (sayings believed to be from the prophet Mohamed) are emphasized over others. This makes it much like every other major faith I'm aware of – sometimes a source of enlightenment and compassion, sometimes not.

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