How much of a threat are Canadian terrorists?

In the past, terrorism implied something far away. Terrorists lived in war-torn or third-world countries. They weren’t part of our daily lives in the West. They never entered out thoughts when we boarded a crowded subway train on our way to work.

Then in March 2004, ten bombs ripped through packed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,500. In July 2005, four more bombs went off during the morning rush on the London transit system, killing 52 and wounding more than 700.

Who had perpetrated these horrendous attacks and why? Were these bombings the result of plots hatched by al-Qaeda, using foreign operatives, as happened in the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.?

The fact is the “London bombers” didn’t fit the popular profile of terrorists. All four suicide bombers were born and raised in England, living with their families, some with young children of their own.

In the years since, dozens of equally dangerous plots have been uncovered across Europe, in the U.K., U.S, Australia, Canada, and many other nations. In these cases, the terrorists were homegrown – citizens of the countries being attacked who had been radicalized. Investigations showed them to be remarkably ordinary people in most respects. They were neither mentally ill nor criminals. Few had travelled abroad to be trained as terrorists, and most seemed to be fairly well integrated into their communities.

What would drive these seemingly average guys to start building bombs in their homes and take up arms against their own country? Careful research has given us insights into the lives of these men, and how they became radicalized. But why they were willing to be so violent remains a mystery, and one that’s very difficult to solve.

Professor Lorne Dawson from the University of Waterloo hopes to answer this very question through extensive research into this new type of terrorism. He is one of only a handful of terrorist researchers in the country, and has quickly become Canada’s expert on terrorist radicalization. Dawson’s work has already convinced government officials that more research is needed on how and why people become terrorists, as a tool to stop budding terrorists in their early stages of development.

Although Canadian soil hasn’t seen a major terrorist attack since the Air India bombings in 1985, several plots, such as “Toronto 18” in 2006, have been stopped. The threat is real, he says. Just look at the recent Boston Marathon bombing, the Via Rail bombing plot, and the Algeria gas plant attack involving two radicalized young Canadians from London, Ontario.

Each incident is contributing to what Dawson calls “the new and permanent reality of homegrown terrorism” in the Western world.

Lorne Dawson

Lorne Dawson

University of Waterloo

Professor

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