TORONTO — Muhammad Robert Heft left Iraq feeling disenchanted.
He came home to Canada in 2003 after trying to help his fellow Muslims while their cities were under bombardment by the U.S. and its allies.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision,” says Heft, who entered Iraq days into the American invasion. “I felt like I had to help.”
Five years beforehand, the Winnipeg-born man had turned from a philandering gambler to a devout Muslim. On a business trip to Egypt, he saw TV footage of Iraqis being bombed, with children’s bodies sprawled across the streets.
He fell into a group that encouraged him to go. They loaded the blue-eyed convert up with medical supplies and brought him to the airport.
“Most of it was my ego, more than anything else. It was almost like they were questioning whether I was a real Muslim,” says Heft.
After crossing into Iraq from Syria, he joined a medical convoy looking for human shields: civilians who place themselves in harm’s way in the hopes of preventing a military attack.
He found himself in a ragtag group of violence-seeking radicals, more focused on thwarting American air strikes than caring for those on the ground.
He lasted a week, and went straight home to Canada. Within months he opened a service centre for new Muslims in Toronto.
For over a decade, Heft and his colleagues at the Paradise For Ever centre, or P4E, in the multicultural Scarborough district have taken on an approach to thwarting terrorist threats that is gaining traction across Canada: spotting people with sympathies for extremism and intervening before they commit a crime.
“Ironically, I was doing the work of deradicalization by explaining the reality I saw,” says Heft. “I use that story to try to inspire people to make more positive choices.”
I was doing the work of deradicalization by explaining the reality I saw. I use that story to try to inspire people to make more positive choices
A year ago, the RCMP said more than 145 Canadians were abroad supporting terror groups, while 90 citizens at home were being watched for aspiring to join them.
Starting this fall, the Mounties will be using an intervention approach similar to Heft’s, to try pulling these people back from the brink of radicalization. But it’s unclear whether the law enforcement agency will be as successful as the community grassroots groups.
Originally, Abu Omar wanted to become an Afghan insurgent. Today, he works with Heft to dissuade people from taking up arms.
“I myself wanted to join the Taliban. I never wanted to come to Canada,” says Abu Omar — not his real name — who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he can continue his outreach role.
I myself wanted to join the Taliban. I never wanted to come to Canada
A decade ago in Pakistan, Omar began frequenting a mosque near his university, run by a fundamentalist group that actively sought young adults with nothing to do.
The mosque leadership hosted members of al-Qaida and the Taliban, a hardline Islamic political movement known for its bomb attacks and violent oppression against women.
It was 2002, and Canada and other NATO countries were months into their fight against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
At home, Omar’s secular parents filed for divorce, while chiding his long beard.
His friends from the mosque fixated on U.S. President George W. Bush’s remarks about a western crusade on terrorism just five days after the attacks. The president later clarified he wasn’t referring to Christian military expeditions conducted during the Middle Ages.
Omar planned to join the Taliban, as some of his friends had done, after finishing his university degree.
But by 2006, Omar became responsible for his mother until she remarried. Family contacts set her up with a man in Toronto.
“Once we got her married, I said, ‘Well you know what, after graduation I’ll be joining the Taliban.’ That was the plan initially. And then my mother said, ‘No, we need to go to Canada.’”
Researchers understand radicalization as a gradual process, where habits, beliefs and then values slowly change to the point of what they call “consolidation.”
“The evidence seems to be suggesting that unless the intervention is pretty damn early, it’s just not going to succeed,” says Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo cult expert who co-runs Canada’s largest terrorism-research network.
“They’re going to be pretty much into an insular world view that is capable of developing rationalizations to refute any counter-arguments. So then when you try to intervene, you’re actually providing food for their alternative world view.”
As Canada eyes more laws and powers for investigators, other countries are focusing on intervening much earlier than when someone boards a plane or attacks a soldier.
In 2005, the United Kingdom rolled out an early-intervention strategy called Channel, as part of its long-standing anti-terrorism policy.
The program is designed to provide intensive one-on-one mentorship, where a police officer surrounds a vulnerable young person with support from local social workers, employment counsellors, housing officials or religious leaders.
“You have to have a multi-faceted approach,” says Rashad Ali, who helped craft the program and has acted as a mentor in Channel interventions across Britain for the past five years.
“That allows us to develop an appropriate program for the individual, tailored to that individual’s needs.”
“They may be at the periphery of plots; they may be engaged in radical activities. The idea is to stop them from moving into the criminal space,” says Ali, now a senior fellow with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-radicalization think-tank in London.
Ali says police often know of people who hold radical views, but haven’t acted on them and can’t be charged. He notes that one of the 2005 London subway bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was on authorities’ radar for years.
To prevent similar incidents, a local “Channel Panel” of officers and trusted social workers meets regularly to assess how each case is progressing. They use a framework of 22 factors that researchers have found in British residents who have executed terrorist plots.
Those factors include “over-identification with a group or ideology,” access to equipment that could harm people and “attitudes that justify offending.”
Once a panel finds these factors no longer exist, the intervention is complete, though the panel reviews each case six and 12 months later.
The program got off to a rough start.
Muslim communities turned away after publicity campaigns explicitly linked them with terrorism. Many were suspicious their information would be passed on to authorities, and some remain wary.
In 2012, Channel was expanded across the U.K. and it has since had a total of 4,000 referrals, although only about 20 per cent are taken on as cases.
You can create quite meaningful, impactful change on those individuals, and they can have a very positive message for those around them
The U.K. Home Office said accepted cases include a child who scrawled, “I want to be a suicide bomber,” in a schoolbook and a student who seemed obsessed with weapons. Two-thirds of cases involve Islamist extremism, while half as many relate to far-right groups.
British officials argue these interventions are much cheaper than criminal or intelligence investigations. But the government doesn’t publish data on how many participants end up committing terrorist offences, how long the interventions take and how many cases are abandoned.
However, academics who have been confidentially briefed on the U.K. program cite a 70 per cent success rate.
“I think it’s quite effective,” says Ali.
“You can create quite meaningful, impactful change on those individuals, and they can have a very positive message for those around them.”
‘The filters are gone’
Omar arrived in Toronto in 2006, taking a job at a Pizza Hut alongside other immigrants and Canadian-born colleagues.
“We were all just the same essentially. No one was like, ‘Oh we should bomb (Afghanistan or Iraq)’. They didn’t even know; they didn’t even care. They were living their lives,” he says.
While Omar warmed to westerners, he spent his evenings poring over online videos, obsessed by the carnage of two bloody wars. He still yearned to fight in Afghanistan.
He expressed these views as a volunteer in a research project on how Muslims viewed apostasy, the abandonment of Islam. He was also frank about the punishment that Muslims who leave Islam should face, supporting the death penalty in countries whose courts follow Islamic law.
Days later, two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service asked Omar to explain his views. He said he supported the Taliban, but explained he wasn’t a threat.
“I’m here under a covenant. You’ve given me protection and you’ve given me rights, and I’m not planning to do anything in Canada, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” he told the agents, who didn’t contact him again.
A new approach
In Canada, a 2007 document from the CSIS intelligence assessment branch flagged early interventions as central to thwarting terrorism at home.
“Individuals at the initial stages of radicalization are more susceptible to change or diversion than those at the latter stages,” according to the report.
“If those at the beginning are still assessing their interest in joining a group or ideology, intervention should be able, in theory, to lead them down a less dangerous path.”
Now, eight years after the CSIS memo, the RCMP is set to roll out its own intervention program, dubbed the Terrorism Prevention Program.
In September 2014, U.K. Channel officials trained 30 police officers from forces across Canada in Ottawa. The RCMP originally said it would launch its program later that year, but now aims to be fully operational by the end of 2015.
The Mounties told the Herald/Postmedia in August the delay was due to ongoing consultation with the justice system, “to ensure the program addresses these risks at different levels.”
When they spot someone at risk, they will notify the local “hub,” where their force’s trained officer will reach out to the person and set up appointments with local mentors, imams, job hunters, or anyone who can help.
Police who intervene focus on what they call “the pre-criminal space,” but they also won’t hesitate to arrest anyone who commits an offence.
Supt. Shirley Cuillierrier, head of RCMP external relations and leader of the terrorism program rollout, says not all interventions are complicated.
“It could be as simple as life circumstances in that individual’s life — that everything is falling apart, that there is no support. So you bring in that support and it’s amazing how people will start to look at things differently, and perhaps not see all as doom and gloom.”
Eight RCMP employees will work full-time on the project, with a $3.1-million budget, about a 10th of the annual budget for Canada’s national-security investigation teams.
Cuillierrier admits officers face a steep learning curve.
“This is a new area for police; we have never, ever dealt with this. We have dealt with crisis, conflict, criminality but this is really, really different.”
A new challenge
Around the time of Omar’s chat with CSIS in 2008, he kept seeing Heft in the news.
Since its 2003 start, Heft’s P4E centre had quickly grown from offering Islam courses and a shelter for disowned converts to becoming a wider community hub.
In 2006, police arrested the Toronto 18 cell, which wanted to blow up vans in downtown Toronto and behead the prime minister.
Heft had unknowingly persuaded some men away from the group. He was called to counsel some of the men who were eventually convicted, to help steer them away from extremism.
Heft’s frequent interviews and talk of peaceful Islam frustrated Omar, who happened to live near the centre. He drove over to pick a fight.
Instead, Heft introduced him to one of his counsellors, who asked Omar what he’d achieve by joining Afghan insurgents.
“He was like: ‘What are you going to do other than be angry, and do what? What do you have here? You have a society and you have a peaceful place where Muslims are prospering; they’re able to go pray. So why don’t you do something positive here?
“They don’t need your manpower. They know their territory better than you. What are you going to contribute? You’re not some hero.’ And you know, it made sense,” says Omar.
They don’t need your manpower. They know their territory better than you. What are you going to contribute? You’re not some hero
Heft then had a challenge for Omar. He pointed out it was un-Islamic to waste one’s time watching videos online. Instead, Heft invited him to volunteer at P4E, teaching the basics of Islam in classes for new converts.
Through teaching those classes, Omar fell in with a group of friends with strong religious convictions.
He was no longer lonely in Canada.
With the national Terrorism Prevention Program delayed for years, several communities across Canada have started their own initiatives.
Montreal’s mayor is set to unveil a storefront centre this fall dedicated to interventions, while Toronto and Calgary police have launched their own intervention hub models, with some RCMP consultation.
Unofficially, people who have come across radicalized people have set up programs in Calgary, Hamilton and Winnipeg.
For example, Shahina Siddiqui of Winnipeg’s Islamic Social Services Association co-launched Hayat Canada, meaning “life” in Arabic.
The group is a spinoff of a German organization that’s spent a decade getting neo-Nazis out of hate groups, and recent years pulling Germans away from terror groups.
“Our core values (are) the best way of immunizing our youth from being sucked into extremist hate ideology,” says Siddiqui, who is training six staff on how to counsel people at risk.
Like Heft, Siddiqui’s staff attempt to dissuade local young people from terror groups, and call police if it’s not working. They both feel having a buffer between families and authorities entices some to come forward.
But these programs don’t always work.
Before last October, when Martin Couture-Rouleau killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent with his car near Montreal, Quebec RCMP had spent four months trying to get him help.
Family and police thought their outreach was working just 11 days before Couture-Rouleau struck, committing an act of homegrown terrorism that shocked the country.
Beyond its effectiveness, legal experts question how police can detect people in need of a pre-criminal intervention when anti-terrorism Bill C-51 — enacted this June — makes it an offence to post support for terrorism online.
Others are suspicious of more bureaucracy.
As part of their research, RCMP consulted Toronto physician Nayeema Siddiq, who has intervened in cases involving radicalization as part of the Muslim Family and Child Services of Ontario.
Similar to the Terrorism Prevention Program, Siddiq’s group assembles doctors, social workers and imams to intervene in family crises, including youth pondering violent extremism. RCMP officers studied her model to help them form their own intervention hubs, according to internal documents released to The Herald/Postmedia.
But Siddiq feels new programs like the national initiative are distracting from an underfunded and slow-to-act social services system that could have stopped people from being susceptible to radicalization in the first place.
“For me, this radicalization thing is nothing new,” says Siddiq, who launched her group a decade ago. “You’re doing things for patients you should have already been doing years ago.”
For me, this radicalization thing is nothing new. You’re doing things for patients you should have already been doing years ago
Meanwhile, Canada has no strategy for people who have returned from supporting terror groups abroad. Last October, CSIS said at least 80 Canadians had returned, and there wasn’t enough evidence to produce a criminal charge.
The federal government believes Bill C-51 will make it easier to charge returnees. The Conservatives also plan to make it a crime to travel to zones gripped by terrorism, making it easier to arrest Canadians who have returned.
Unlike Channel, Canada’s terror prevention program will strictly focus on those who haven’t yet committed an offence or joined a group abroad.
“This is an important part of an ongoing, adjusting effort,” says Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney. “We have to adjust to the evolving threat, and we are learning from experience.”
‘I’m their friend’
Omar now spends his time working as a security guard and caring for his children.
He spoke to The Herald/Postmedia at Heft’s P4E centre, whose walls cradle benches with oriental tapestry and posters explaining the basic concepts of Islam.
The centre is popular for Arabic lessons and religious counselling. Around the large wooden table, Omar is among a handful of mentors at Heft’s monthly dinners for converts.
It’s partially through these informal events that Omar himself has been able to steer at least 10 people away from joining violent groups, according to Heft.
“If it’s done in a more subtle manner, they’re more open to it,” says Omar, who acts more as a friend than a counsellor.
Omar says the young people he’s worked with are consumed by foreign policy grievances. They’re angry Canada waited four years before intervening in Syria’s brutal civil war, and for recentlysigning arms deals with oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia.
It’s for that reason both Omar and Heft are skeptical of a national program funded by government money. They say official involvement will take away all credibility in the eyes of young radicals.
And they’re not sure how police will manage uncomfortable views.
Grey zones between free speech and violence
Omar still supports the Taliban.
“They should remove the government or western intervention that’s there,” he says.
“But . . . holding radical ideas and actually engaging in them, I think they’re two different things,” says Omar, who still believes violence against enemy combatants can be acceptable.
Such views are repugnant to most Canadians. Heft says Mounties will have to navigate the grey zones between free speech and violent actions when they launch their program.
When you start to want to go after people’s ideas and become a thought police . . . that’s when it gets dangerous
He says some Muslims hold other views that are outside the mainstream — for example, on homosexuality or women’s rights — but don’t attack gay people or beat their wives.
“(Omar) still has some interesting views but he’s not a threat to anyone,” says Heft, who prefers the word “disengagement” over deradicalization.
“When you start to want to go after people’s ideas and become a thought police, people like (Omar) go underground,” he says. “That’s when it gets dangerous.”