War on terror: Actions of radicals don’t symbolize what Islam is all about

Terrorism acts occur in many countries and occasionally close to home, such as the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon and the conspiracy to derail a New York-bound VIA Rail passenger train.

The list of organizations designated as terrorist by various governments is lengthy. In the past, they included the Irish Republican Army, Basque Homeland and Freedom, Brigate Rosse , and the Baader-Meinhof Group. Current banned groups tend to be radical Islamic ones, such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Al Fatah, Hamas and Boko Haram. Like terrorist groups generally, they use violence against civilians uninvolved in their issues to address perceived wrongs.

Islam is a religion of peace in many parts of the world. The Qur'an contains extracts of violence — as does the Old Testament, by the way — but does not incite violence as its first or only recourse. Patience, self-discipline, and forgiveness are attributes of the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. The actions of radicals will never symbolize what Islam is as long as the Prophet’s words and the Qur'an are followed properly.

The problem is the radicals. Tamerlan Tsarnaev appears to have embraced an anti-American strain of Islam seemingly without major terrorist connections. At this point, it appears he was radicalized by internet sources and not by training with militant resurgents in Dagestan or elsewhere. Tsarnaev frequently went to extremist websites, including Inspire magazine, an English-language online publication produced by Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, which endorses “lone-wolf” terror attacks. The tragic result is that the U.S. now needs to prepare itself for Boston-type attacks by “lone-wolf” terrorists in addition to 9/11-style attacks by terror networks.

Canada has radicals too, as indicated by the thwarting of the VIA Rail terror plot. Two non-Canadian residents (both of whom are legally in Canada), Chiheb Esseghaier, a Tunisian student who has travelled to Iran and was working on his Ph.D. thesis on biosensors, and Raed Jaser, a moving company employee who has repeatedly run afoul of the law and dodged a deportation order for years, are accused of conspiring to attack a VIA Rail train in an unprecedented, al-Qaeda-assisted assault in Canada. RCMP investigators believe that al-Qaeda operatives in Iran were involved. Although there is no indication yet of Iranian government involvement with the suspects, the alleged al-Qaeda-Iran connection has created alarm in the U.S.

Curiously, the arrests of Jaser and Esseghaier occurred just after the lethal events in Boston and were timed perfectly with the debate in our House of Commons about stricter terror legislation. Also curiously, we have seen major high-profile radical groups break up only to see more atomized groups take their place in recent years.

Families of some radicals anxiously observe that they are developing more extreme viewpoints, opting for a more rigid brand of Islam, embracing conspiracy theories and exhibiting enthusiasm bordering on zealotry.

Canadian Muhammad Robert Heft has been asked by families to do “de-radicalization” work with Muslim youth, including Raed Jaser, who missed the appointment arranged by his concerned father several years ago. The crucial player in the Jaser-Esseghaier arrest was an admirable imam who noticed one of the men trying to approach young Muslims with extremist propaganda. Through a local authority, the imam alerted an attorney, who then contacted authorities. They investigated and foiled the plot.

To end Islamic terrorism, we must work with our Muslim neighbours. The best place to pick up early warning signs of terror attacks is in their communities because that is where jihadists do their recruiting. The vast majority of Muslim parents do not want their children to be lured into jihadist violence, just as other parents do not want their kids to be enticed into criminal gangs or cults. We need the help of the Muslim community; many are willing to help.

The New America Foundation, in conjunction with Syracuse University, keeps a running tally of post-9/11 cases in which Muslims have tipped off the government to terror plots, as does the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The informers, including mosque leaders, take personal risks in coming forward.

Canadians have managed relations with Muslims quite well. The director for the Islamic Foundation of Toronto says that there is informed surveillance in the community. The lawyer for the imam who stopped the Jaser-Esseghaier violence has helped other local Muslims to contact law enforcement authorities. In Ottawa, another imam says that he would do the same because “It is the religious duty of a Muslim to report anything that might be dangerous ... It’s mentioned in the Qur'an.”

Relations in the U.S. are also improving. The FBI issues Community Leadership Awards to organizations that divert young Muslims from radicalization and teach government agencies about Muslim life and homegrown terrorism.

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Detection and intervention succeed when they originate from people close to those becoming hostile and intolerant in their faith, rather than from external surveillance. Although Tamerlan Tsarnaev appears to have taken his inspiration from the Internet, his uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, confronted him about his slide into extremism. He had also been reined in by mosque elders who urged him to cease his harsh and strident outbursts. Ultimately those effort failed, but then so did the American intelligence community, and probably Russian intelligence too.

No-one wants a surveillance society, but we do want caring and safe communities. We should start seeing our Muslim communities as the solution rather than as the problem. Muslims do not want their youth brainwashed and turned into killers. For every jihadist seeking war, there exists an imam seeking peace. For every Tamerlan Tsarnaev, there is a level-headed Ruslan Tsarni. There are many who can stop terrorism. We need their help; they need ours.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.