A Chink in Canada's Armour: A Comparative Study of Counter-Radicalization and Deradicalization methods in Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada

By: James Balasch


Canada is in a position whereby the radicalization of its citizens is increasingly becoming a security concern. Because of this, counter-radicalization and deradicalization are becoming more important to Canada’s terrorism prevention strategy. This essay provides an analysis of the counter-radicalization and deradicalization methods used by Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada against Islamic extremism, although the conclusions of this essay can be applied to other forms of extremism as well. By using case studies to provide context, this essay posits that while Canada does have some counter-radicalization and deradicalization programs, they remain insufficient and demonstrate the need for Canada to enhance its terrorism prevention strategies and overall national security platform.

Saudi Arabia is widely known as one of the world’s leaders in counter radicalization and deradicalization. Following a wave of terrorist violence in 2003, the Saudi government launched a series of unique counter-terrorism measures intended to combat Islamic extremism, a result of some of its citizens becoming radicalized and taking up extreme political and social positions.[1] Due to the capture and incarceration of numerous terrorists and terrorist supporters, the Saudi government encountered issues of rehabilitation, reintegration, prevention of radicalization and recruitment.[2] Although there was significant opposition from counter-terrorism experts, the Saudi Arabian government saw the advantages to rehabilitating terrorist and terrorist supporters.[3] The first advantage was the ability to gain insight into the inner workings of terrorists groups as well as their recruitment methods.[4] A second advantage to rehabilitation was that its subjects could be used to prevent future terrorist attacks by revealing their accomplices or simply dissuading future would-be terrorists.[5] Although rehabilitation was being used as a tool of deradicalization defined as “the process of causing an individual to abandon radical beliefs”, this was only the latter half of the Saudi counter-terrorism strategy.[6]

Counter-radicalization is defined as “the process of preventing an individual from internalizing beliefs that are likely to lead to political violence”, and was the first stage of Saudi Arabia’s unique counter-terrorism strategy.[7] This strategy was unique because it used Islamic theology as the ideological base of Saudi counter-radicalization strategies.[8] The first of these strategies was the countering radical Islamic theology (in this case al-Qaeda) through the mass media such as movies, pamphlets, university curriculums and the internet. For example, the al-Sakinah campaign was developed to initiate online dialogue with extremists in an attempt to have them to renounce their views.[9] An important part of most of these counter-radicalization campaigns is that usually some form counter narrative from a repentant deradicalized terrorist is used to prevent others from going down the same path.[10] This exemplifies how Saudi Arabia’s counter-radicalization and deradicalizations strategies require each other to maintain their effectiveness at preventing terrorism.

The centre-piece of the Saudi deradicalization strategy is “The Counseling Program” – a program designed to rehabilitate radicalized prisoners.[11] The Counseling Program maintains that its radicalized Islamic prisoners were ideologically misled at some point and have an incomplete understanding of Islam.[12] Through religious debates on Islamic teachings and psychological counseling, the program helps incarcerated radicalized extremist and sympathizers learn a less extreme understanding of Islam.[13] The one limitation that has been imposed on the program by the Saudi government is that it cannot release any detainees who had actively participated in violence upon their completion of the program.[14] Although this program might sound novel, it is in actuality a commonly accepted practice of rehabilitating prisoners in the Saudi Arabian penal system, which has traditionally incorporated religious elements taught from government and non-governmental organizations.[15] Examples of such programs are the Committee for Supporting Prisoners and their Families or the National Committee for the Care of Prisoners, Released Prisoners and their Families to name a few.[16]

The use of religious debates and psychological counseling, however, are only the first layer of rehabilitation tools used by Saudi Arabia. The Counseling Program also looks after all aspects of rehabilitating prisoners who have successfully completed the program back into Saudi society including purchasing cars, arranging apartments, providing government stipends, arranging loans to open small businesses and even facilitating the marriages of its former prisoners.[17] In addition to thorough rehabilitation care, the program also mitigates the risk of one of its detainee’s family members becoming radicalized because their family member is in prison by financially supporting families while their relation is with the program.[18]

The Saudi Arabian rehabilitation program has a track record of success.[19] Between 2003 and 2007, the program had 3,000 participants resulting in 1,500 being successfully deradicalized and released back into society.[20] The program has also received attention from the extremist community, which has denounced it as a “sham” and its graduates as “government spies.”[21] The attempts by the extremist community to discredit the Counseling Program imply that the program is seen as a threat to their operations, thereby lending the Counseling Program legitimacy. Although there have been a few significant cases of resistance to rehabilitation over the program’s short history, Western governments have taken note of the Saudi program over the years and expressed interest in its methods.[22] In a generation of new terrorism prevention strategies, Saudi Arabia is in many ways a global trend setter for countries like Australia that are in the midst of developing terrorism prevention strategies.[23]

Australia is an example that is in the midst of transitioning to an effective counter-radicalization and deradicalization strategy. When Islamic extremism emerged in the early 2000s Australian authorities initially reacted with traditional terrorism prevention methods, including the more traditional measure of repression.[24] Though Australia was largely successful in penetrating terrorist networks, the Australian terrorism prevention methods undermined years of respectful relations with Australia’s Islamic communities due to its ‘zero tolerance’ approach.[25] An example of the flaws in Australia’s traditional approach to terrorism prevention is a 2009 Australian case wherein terrorist plotters revealed that they had become partly radicalized by the arrest of their acquaintances from a previous terrorist plot.[26] Although the earlier plot had been foiled by Australian authorities, the state failed to ensured the social welfare of the plotters’ relations after the arrest to prevent them from turning to extremism.[27]

The 2009 incident outlined a considerable weakness in Australia’s terrorism prevention strategy while also serving as a catalyst to shift to a new terror-prevention strategy that emphasized counter-radicalization and deradicalization. In 2010 the Australian government commissioned the “Monash Radicalization Project”, based out of Monash University in Melbourne.[28] This project was created to study radicalization, facilitate better counter-terrorism policy and practice, and identify effective counter measures to radicalization.[29] Additionally, the “Community Outreach Program” was initiated in Sydney in 2007, a few years previous to the Monash Project.[30] A partnership that included social workers, psychologist and local police, the aim of this program was to reintegrate Muslim youth into their communities and prevent them from being vulnerable to radicalizion that could lead to terrorism.[31] Another example of counter-radicalization is the New South Wales “Counter-Narrative Program”. Since 2009 this program has introduced successful and popular Muslim role models such as artists, politicians and scholars, from around the world to Australian Muslim communities to create a counter-narrative against Islamic terrorism.[32] To include the Islamic religious community in their terrorism prevention strategy, the Australian government has participated in an Imams conference program that facilitates discourse between Islamic leaders and state officials.[33] As we have seen previously with the Saudi example, these counter-radicalization strategies are only fully effective when deradicalization strategies accompany them.

Australia does have deradicalization strategies, though they are not as encompassing as Saudi Arabia’s strategies. In 2009, the Australian Islamic Council of Victoria partnered with local police and correctional services to facilitate visitation between Imams and detainees on terrorism related charges on a weekly basis in order to discuss Islamic issues related to their narratives.[34] Furthermore, a Lecture and Open Discussion Forum was founded in Victoria in 2010 where Islamic scholars conduct weekly discussions with former detainees who chose the topic of discussion.[35] Both of these programs provide deradicalization in some manner, thought it is evident that their use is regional as opposed to an all encompassing national strategy. Even though Australia has an abundance of counter-radicalization programs and some region-specific deradicalization programs, it is evident that a required change in Australian terrorism prevention has at least begun.

When studying the Canadian government’s counter-radicalization and deradicalization initiatives it is evident that they are less comprehensive than those found in Saudi Arabia and Australia. During the mid-2000s, radicalization was put on the Canadian government’s security agenda when it joined the Roma-Lyon Project, a group of experts from G-8 countries that share experiences and attempt to develop a common approach to the issue of radicalization.[36] With the influences of the “homegrown” 2004 Madrid bombings and the London 7/7 attacks, radicalization assumed an increasing amount of attention from Canada’s national security experts and agencies.[37] In 2012 Public Safety Canada acknowledged the threat of readicalization when it issued a prevention strategy that aimed to “…build resilience to violent ideologies in Canadian communities, reduce risk related to radicalization… and produce counter-narratives.”[38] Around this time a serious effort was made at the government level to develop and share terrorism prevention information relating to radicalization. This was done by building up a network of security knowledge, exemplified by the Combating Violent Extremism Working Group that is made up of 18 different government departments and analyzes differing radical Islamic threats.[39] Additionally, the increase of Canadian Security Intelligence Service literature on the topic attests to the prominence of radicalization within Canadian security.[40] The best example of this culmination of information on radicalization is in the form of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Counter-Terrorism Information Officers (CTI Officers). The CTI Officers use the knowledge of radicalization they are given during their training and act as resources for law-enforcement agencies and communities vulnerable to radicalization.[41]

In addition to CTI Officers, there are numerous other counter-radicalization tools used in Canadian communities. Public Engagement Programming is one of these other counter-radicalization tools. This programming aims to improve Canadian communities’ recognition and response to radicalization, while at the same time encouraging initiatives intended to reduce the appeal of radicalization to young people.[42] Another initiative is the Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security. This is a forum composed of leading citizens from Canadian communities across the country, with extensive experience in cultural and social issues who engage in discourse with the government on long-term security issues.[43] Although this organization’s reputation was threatened in 2015 with suspension of member Hussein Hamdani because of a security investigation into his past associations, the roundtable still exists and gives a valuable multi-cultural perspective for counter-radicalization within Canada.[44] On top of their previous counter-radicalization programs the RCMP has also established “hubs.” A hub is a group of community and government department representatives that meet regularly to discuss if there is an elevated risk to their communities, and if so how they can collaborate their resources to deal with it effectively. As of late 2014 there were 6 hubs operating in Southern Ontario, and with the support of the RCMP hubs have begun to develop basic deradicalization capabilities if radicalized individuals are encountered.[45] Canadian communities are not the only places counter-terrorism is used as this terrorism prevention strategy is also used in Canadian prisons.

Although Correctional Services Canada refuses to comment publicly on changes concerning the treatment of Muslims in Canadian prisons, in this case actions speak louder than words.[46] These changes are heavily influenced by the international community. Evidence of this is through the 2009 Roma-Lyon group recommendations, because of Canada’s relatively new interaction with the challenge of radicalization and terrorist recruitment within Canadian prisons.[47] With Muslims currently being the fastest growing religious population within Canadian prisons, the need to prevent radical ideology from growing within prisons is becoming ever more crucial.[48] CSC itself has implemented a number of minor changes that, although subtle, are a step in the right direction in regards to prevent the spread of radical ideology within its prisons. The changes are religious based, such as preventing the spread of radical ideologies by replacing inmate-led religious services with Imam-led services for Canadian prisons.[49] Other changes have been made, such as limiting the amount of contact between prisoners accused of terrorism and developing programs for vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from becoming radicalized.[50] Although the threat of radicalization within Canadian prisons is still in its infancy, with 16 individuals charged with terrorist offences since January 2015 alone this is an issue where it is crucial to be proactive.[51]

At this point a major weakness in Canadian terrorism prevention strategy becomes apparent that both Saudi Arabia and Australia address in some way, this Canada’s lack of official deradicalization programs. Although there is no international ready-made, one size fits all deradicalization program for any country, the Canadian government needs to spend time and resources to create a Canadian-specific deradicalization program. Currently there is an obvious opportunity for the government to be pre-emptive with its future security, something already proven in part by the cases of Saudi Arabia and Australia.[52] The further development of Canadian deradicalization programs could serve a number of purposes. First they would help gain insight into how Canadians from a wide variety of backgrounds are becoming radicalized and turning to domestic and foreign terrorism, adding to Canada’s already extensive research base.[53] Second they would help develop counter-narratives that resonate stronger then terrorist propaganda, something that Senate committees have recognized the importance of, and have been proven by Saudi Arabia and Australia as valuable tools in terrorism prevention.[54]

By examining the counter-radicalization and deradicalization strategies of Saudi Arabia, Australia and Canada it has been demonstrated how each country addresses these challenges in its own unique way. Finally Canada’s relative lack of deradicalization programs, identified in this paper as a vital partner to counter-radicalization programs, has been identified as weakness that has the potential to threaten future successful Canadian terrorism prevention if it is not addressed.

[1] Christopher Boucek, “Extremist re-education and rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia,” in Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement, ed. Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan (Padstow: Routledge, 2009),  212.

Oxford Dictionaries, “Radicalization,” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/radicalization (accessed January 1, 2017).

[2] Richard Barrett and Laila Bokhari, “Deradicalization and rehabilitation programs targeting religious terrorists and extremists in the Muslim world: An overview,” in Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement, ed. Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan (Padstow: Routledge, 2009), 170.

[3] Barrett and Bokhari, 173.

[4] Ibid., 173-174.

[5] Ibid., 173-174, 180.

[6] Alex P. Schmid, Radicalization, De-Radicalization, Counter-Radicalization: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature Review, (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2013), 40.

[7] Dashiell Dronyk, “The Canadian Response to Radicalization to Violence,” CDA Institute Vimy Paper, (Ottawa: Canadian Defence Associations Institute, 2015), 3.

[8] Barrett and Bokhari, 179.

[9] Ibid., 179.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Andreas Casptack, “Deradicalization Programs in Saudi Arabia: A Case Study,” Content, http://www.mei.edu/content/deradicalization-programs-saudi-arabia-case-study (accessed November 7, 2016).

[12] Boucek, 215-216.

[13] Ibid., 213.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 213-214.

[16] Ibid. Trahum, “About Trahum,” About Us, https://trahum.org/en/about-us.php (accessed November 7, 2016).

[17] Ibid., 214, 216-217.

[18] Ibid., 216, 219.

[19] Ibid., 221.

[20] Ibid., 222.

[21] Ibid., 221.

[22] Andreas Casptack, “Deradicalization Programs in Saudi Arabia: A Case Study,” Content, http://www.mei.edu/content/deradicalization-programs-saudi-arabia-case-study (accessed November 7, 2016). Boucek, 222.

[23] Monash University, “Understanding Radicalization, Deradicalization, and Counter-radicalization from an Australian Perspective,” Monash Radicalization Project, http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/radicalisation/ (accessed November 7, 2016).

[24] Hamid El-Said, New Approaches to Countering Terrorism: Designing and Evaluating Counter Radicalization and De-Radicalization Programs, (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 76-77.

[25] El-Said, 77.

[26] Andrew Zammit, “The Holsworthy Barracks Plot: A Case Study of an Al-Shabab Support Network in Australia,” Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel 5 (2012): 6, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-holsworthy-barracks-plot-a-case-study-of-an-al-shabab-support-network-in-australia (accessed November 7, 2016).

[27] El-Said, 78-79.

[28] Ibid., 80.

[29] Monash University, “Understanding Radicalization, Deradicalization, and Counter-radicalization from an Australian Perspective,” Monash Radicalization Project, http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/radicalisation/ (accessed November 7, 2016).

[30] El-Said, 88.

[31] Ibid., 88.

[32] Ibid., 89.

[33] Ibid., 90-91.

[34] Ibid., 81.

[35] Ibid., 89.

[36] Jeffery Monaghan, “Criminal Justice Policy Transfer and Prison Counter-Radicalization: Examing Canadian Participation in the Roma-Lyon Group,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 30, no. 3 (2015): 386.

[37] Jeffrey Monaghan, “Security Traps and Discourses of Radicalization: Examining Surveillance Practices Targeting Muslims in Canada,” Surveillance & Society 12, no.4 (2014):  485, 487.

[38] Dronyk, 3.

[39] Monaghan, 486.

[40] Ibid., 487.

[41] Ibid., 493. Jeffery Monaghan and Adam Molnar, “Radicalisation Theories, Policing Practices, and ‘the future of terrorism?’ Critical Studies on Terrorism 9, no. 3 (2016):” 407. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17539153.2016.1178485 (accessed November 9, 2016).

[42] Dronyk, 4.

[43] Public Safety Canada, Building Resilience Against Terrorism: Canada’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, (Government of Canada, 2013), 14. https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/rslnc-gnst-trrrsm/index-en.aspx (accessed November 7, 2016).

[44] Craig Forcese and Kent Roach, False Security: The Radicalization of Canadian anti-terrorism, (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2015), 474. Public Safety Canada, “Cross-Cultural Roundtable on Security,” National Security, https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/crss-cltrl-rndtbl/index-en.aspx (accessed November 7, 2016).

[45] Dronyk, 5.

[46] Monaghan, 385.

[47] Ibid., 389, 391.

[48] Canadian Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, Countering the Terrorist Threat in Canada: An Interim Report, 2015, Committee Print, 8, http://books2.scholarsportal.info/viewdoc.html?id=699848 (accessed November 9, 2016). Forcese and Roach 478.

[49] Monaghan, 492.

[50] Ibid., 492.

[51] Public Safety Canada, 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, (Government of Canada, 2016), 18, https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/2016-pblc-rpr-trrrst-thrt/index-en.aspx#s7 (accessed November 7, 2016)

[52] Darcy M. E. Noricks, “Disengagement and Deradicalization: Programs and Processes,” in Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together, ed. Paul K. Davis and Kim Cragin, (Santa Monica: RAND National Defense Research Institute, 2009) 311. Forcese and Roach, 480.

[53] John McCoy and W. Andy Knight, “Homegrown Terrorism in Canada: Local Patterns, Global Trends,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38 (2015): 265-266.

[54] Public Safety Canada 2016, 15. Canadian Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence,  4.