As many scholars and policy analysts have made clear, the nature of contemporary terrorism and political violence is evolving. While terrorist violence has indeed been rare in Canada, we are nevertheless not immune from it. Cases like the Air India bombing of 1985, the Toronto 18 plot of 2006, as well as instances of Canadian youth travelling overseas to fight on behalf of foreign groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia are all cause for concern. Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy, entitled Building Resilience Against Terrorism, calls on law enforcement to not only “prevent, detect, deny, and respond” to terrorist activity in Canada, but also to build community resilience against the spread of extremist ideas and to prevent radicalization to violence.
The complexity of the issue, then, lies in the fact that violent extremists do not have an easily distinguishable character trait, and come from a wide variety of religious, ethnic, regional, and socio-economic backgrounds. Similarly, while certain grievances against Canadian society and culture as well as national and foreign policy may indeed be precursors to violent radicalization, the question remains: why do the vast majority of individuals who hold grievances remain nonviolent? This study focuses on the resilience and pro-social expression of dissent among youth who experience themselves as marginalized or silenced. While it is important to understand what radicalizes youth to the point of violence, it is also important to identify culturally specific and population wide factors that support the engagement of youth without that engagement leading to violence.
The study of resilience shifts the focus of research from psychopathology and disorder to the individual, social, economic and political factors that predict positive and prosocial development, social cohesion, cultural adherence, relationships, powerful identities, individual and social efficacy, and many other influences on behaviour. A social ecological understanding of resilience decenters our understanding of resilience, arguing that much more of a person’s positive development under stress can be accounted for by external rather than internal factors. Applied to the problem of homegrown terrorism or radicalization, we need to investigate in contextually sensitive ways why the vast majority of young people resist violence even as they become engaged. How do they experience the psychosocial benefits associated with resilience without resorting to violence? What pathways do they follow, and what do their families, communities and governments provide them with that make it more likely they will become resilient without becoming a violent extremist? Our study, funded by Public Safety Canada’s Kanishka Project, is among the very first in the world to investigate the social ecologies of resilience that prevent violent extremism.