Daniel Gallant’s unique experience as an activist, counselor, scholar, writer and former violent right wing extremist offers a unique insight into what we can all contribute to decreasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks.
On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center in New York City crashed to the ground. Images of people jumping from high rises, clouds of debris and the ruins of where the twin towers once stood as emergency response teams arrived; along with the attacks on the American Pentagon, were seen around the world.
Al-Qaeda had attacked the symbolic epicenter of world economics. Since 9/11, countries around the world have focused on, and rightfully so, responding to extremist and terrorist action; primarily Jihadist extremists.
The Muslim faith is not a threat to society. In fact, many Muslims around the world are speaking out against violent extremism and terrorism. In 2011 Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CBC that ‘Islamicism’ is the biggest threat to national security in Canada. Many people would agree with Harper. It is believed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper meant violent Jihadist extremists when he used the discourteous term ‘Islamicism’. No matter what term is used, Jihadist extremists do pose a primary threat to public safety and stability. Canada has had an increase in Muslim converts who then ‘radicalize’ into extreme Jihadist terrorists.
In fact, Canada reportedly has over 100 Canadian Jihadist converts that have travelled to the Middle East to be trained in warfare. Young Canadian men from Calgary, Alberta, and Kamloops, British Columbia, have been radicalized into extreme Jihadist doctrines and then travelled to fight along with terrorists overseas.
Mubin Shaikh is a former Jihadist extremist from Canada. Shaikh was the primary CSIS/RCMP operative who made counter-terrorist intervention possible in what became known as the Toronto 18 terrorist plot.
Mubin Shaikh offered insight into how the 9/11 attacks had played a role in his own disengagement from a violent extremist Jihad. Shaikh said:
“The attacks of 9/11 made me rethink my commitment to the Jihadist Doctrine. The spectacle of the attack was so great that the impact on my worldview was similarly, visceral. It was only after having gone to study Arabic and Islamic Studies in Syria with mainstream Sunni scholars that I came to learn of my factually incorrect and destructive interpretations of Islam. Based on this new knowledge, I have taken the fight back to extremists and continue to engage them in such debates online.”
Shaikh is an international expert on radicalization and has spoken to countless national security teams about the importance of having former violent extremists and or terrorists play a role in providing active extremists/terrorists with opportunities to disengage from violent behavior.
According to world leading scholar Dr. John Horgan it is only after an active violent extremist disengages that the process of being ‘de-programmed’, aka deradicalized, can take place. Government, security, law enforcement and scholars have been diligently responding to threat and acts of terrorism on Canadian soil and abroad. The question remains though, what are the most effective responses to extremism and terrorism?
Public Safety Canada had set aside and doled out $10,000,000.00 for research on Canadian terrorism and extremism; with a focus on counter-terrorist measures. The Kanishka Project’s website refers to both Jihadist types and violent right wing extremists as the areas that threaten public safety in Canada. This is one example of measures taken by the Canadian Government to develop effective responses to domestic terrorism. It appears Canada is concerned not only about Jihadist terrorism, but also white supremacist types. These extremist networks spill over into urban, and even seemingly unlikely rural, areas across Canada.
9/11 terrorist attacks did not only affect victims, families and innocent by-standers across the country; the attacks also reportedly impacted active violent extremists and former extremists. Both former Jihadists and former white supremacists have reported that 9/11 resulted in them being compelled to engage with activist work to counter extremism and violent messages. I too, the author of this article, as a former violent extremist experienced a profound impact following the 9/11 attacks.
People, all people, were moved in one way or another on September 11, 2001.
Tragedy inspires change
Frank Meeink, author of Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, was a prominent white supremacist in the early years of the North American Nazi skinhead movement. Meeink hosted a US Aryan TV show in the 1980s. Meeink now is an active anti-hate professional with several human-rights-based organizations in the US, and manages a sports program to deter youth from engaging with violence.
A major catalyst for Meeink’s personal change was a news report of a terrorist attack. After serving time in federal and state prisons Meeink experienced an epiphany about his role in the ‘movement’ after watching the tragedy of the Oklahoma City Bombing on TV, perpetrated by a lone wolf right wing extremist. Meeink also reports that the 9/11 attacks prompted and compelled him to become more active in his community, and he began a nationwide campaign against hate.
Another prominent North American white supremacist, Tony “Mac” McAleer, reports that 9/11 inspired him to deeper consideration of his previous disengagement from violent right wing extremism. Tony Mac was a forerunner in both the Canadian and American white supremacist movement. He was a leader and a propagandist. Although Tony had exited the white power movement five years prior to 9/11, he reflects on the event as the memorial date approaches.
“I had disengaged from the movement…I was at ground zero a month after 9/11 and could still smell the smoke of the burning metal and plastic that was still smoldering under the rubble. When I reflected upon what had been my own ‘Turner Diaries’ [a white supremacist fiction about a series of racist terrorist attacks, a copy of this book was also found in Timothy MacVeigh’s home after the Oklahoma City Bombing] and how these inspired fantasies of massive attacks on ‘the [Zionist] system’. I was confronted with the reality of what such extreme violence actually looks like. I wondered how could I have possibly been so misguided in my anger?”
McAleer now directs an organization called Life-after-hate, which runs a US-based ‘de-radicalization’ program in conjunction with many other counter-violence initiatives hosted by the non-profit society. Tony was one of the first consultants with the Against Violent Extremism network, the brainchild of think-tank Google Ideas.
Last year, two blocks away from Ground Zero, Mubin Shaikh and I had presented at a Google Ideas Summit to a number of security experts that included US Department of State, Pentagon Staff, military, media and UK experts on terrorism. In the evenings after the conference I had walked the perimeter of Ground Zero and visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which had a WWII Jewish memorial exhibit. I was profoundly moved about the necessity to dedicate my life to counter-extremism and anti-violence. I was in New York City to present on my counter-extremist activist work blocks away from 9/11 and a prominent Holocaust Memorial. I was filled with gratitude and it became clear to me then that I had to continue sharing about the work that former extremists are doing.
As I wrote in my masters thesis, 9/11 had a profound impact on me while I was a violent racist skinhead. I was prepared for war, but it did not take long for me to realize I did not want to kill anyone, and I surely was not prepared to die for a political movement filled with deceptive messages and people who lacked common sense, logic and integrity. I began to consider a way out. 9/11 became a key for an epiphany and a catalyst for the personal and social transformation of those of us who harbored hatred in our hearts.
We, former extremists, are left with considerations of what more we can do to contribute to building safer communities, from the very people who are the way we once were. Collectively we hope to offer the society we were once at war with, an opportunity to utilize our commitment and our passion to contribute to decreasing the likelihood of future attacks.
There is no doubt that young Canadians are buying into Jihadist extremist narratives that result in terrorist acts. This is happening both through, and by, organized terrorist cells and ‘lone wolves’. The Jihadist narrative is often disseminated through social media and online resources. One does not need to search long before finding Jihadist and white supremacists sharing propaganda resources online.
After digging around online one can find some interesting social media conversations and seemingly odd propaganda shared amongst Jihadist extremist and white supremacist Nazi-esque extremists.
One of the longest standing online resources that disseminate both white supremacist and Jihadist propaganda is Radio Islam. Sources report that Radio Islam has been disseminating hate propaganda for both Jihadists and white supremacists since 1997.
Many violent extremist groups share a narrative that disseminates propaganda that identifies, scapegoats and blames many social problems unto an entire group of people, namely Jews and or Zionists. Anti-Semitism is both conspiratorial and discriminative in practice, more often than not it is also racist.
Doctoral student Mubin Shaikh is an expert on matters relating to Jihadist extremism, specifically in Canada. Shaikh was the key CSIS and RCMP operative that intervened and dismantled a terrorist plot that intended to behead Canadian politicians and perpetrate bombings. Shaikh reports that:
“in terms of hate narratives and dehumanization of the “other”, there is remarkable similarity in anti-Jewish narratives between white supremacists and Muslim extremists. Where one seeks to exploit historical and economic contexts, the religionists tend to use scripture out of context to achieve the same goal: ‘dehumanization to the point of justifying indiscriminate violence”.
According to scholars in the US, Jews have been scapegoated for the state of social conditions for over a thousand years. Jews have experienced persecution around the world. It seems that Jews are often labeled as being ‘Zionist’, who are in turn allegedly part of a half-baked conspiracy narrative about people that are said to control international media, governments and banking systems. The crux of the link between Jihadist and white supremacists is a shared enemy; the ‘Jews’ aka ‘Zionists’.
CSIS released information a few years ago that linked Canadian white supremacists to Muammar al-Gadaffi. Neo-Nazis in Canada were visiting Gadaffi in Libya. The commonality between the Militant Muslim leader of Libya and Canadian white supremacists was wholly attributed to anti-Semitism.
According to former-extremist Tony ‘Mac’ McAleer, who is a counter-right-wing-extremist expert, he stated that:
“I had been invited to travel to Libya by Grant [Bristow, a CSIS agent] and Wolfgang Droege [a convicted white supremacist terrorist that was key player in a terrorist plot against US government in the 1980s]. [The trip was to be] financed by the Libyan embassy in Ottawa. We were to fly to Italy, then Malta, and board a freighter to Tripoli for celebration of his [Gaddafi’s] Revolution…I was really looking forward to the trip, but it was cancelled after a US airstrike upon his palace”.
I recently wrote an article for openDemocracy, in conjunction with The FREE Initiative that focuses on countering-far-right-wing-extremism in Europe, which is facilitated and coordinated by Vidhya Ramalingam from UK’s renowned think/do-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue. In it, I shared my own personal experience with the cross-over and propaganda sharing between Jihadist and white supremacist extremist networks.
There is a danger that a shared fictionalized enemy, Jews and or ‘Zionists’, of both Jihadists and white supremacists could become a justification for further acts of terrorism; as was the rationale for the 9/11 attacks. The World Trade Center was known within both Jihadist and white supremacist networks as a target as it was the epicenter of ‘Jewish’ and or ‘Zionist’ economics.
Right wing extremism
We know that Jihadist extremists are a major threat to public safety in Canada, and abroad, but that is not the only threat that looms in our neighborhoods. Research indicates that hate groups do not commit the majority of Hate Crimes in North America; rather normal citizens commit these violent crimes. It is reported that right wing extremist activity is on the rise in spite of reports by law enforcement that indicate otherwise. Moreover, Homeland Security reported that the main threat in the US is right wing extremism, and their affiliated networks.
According to the Homeland Security 2009 Intelligence Report violent right wing extremists are targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, infrastructure sectors and banks. These acts include an increase in bombings. In fact, according to this report right wing extremists perpetrate most bombings in the USA. The target in these attacks, at least in a symbolic representation, is the ‘Zionist Occupied Government’ (ZOG). The thread that holds the white supremacist narrative together is anti-Semitism; it is the heart of hatred of Nazi-types.
The same Homeland Security reports a warning that echoes what American former-neo-Nazi-skinhead, TJ Leyden, has said for many years; the US military has become a training ground for right wing extremists. Researchers report that the rise of right wing extremist activity is partially due to socio-economic issues. And the white power movement blames the ‘Jews’ and ‘Zionists’ for much of these socio-economic issues. Canada too has had it’s own fair share of right wing extremists within the military.
Perhaps, it is worth consideration to broaden the focus from Jihadist extremists to include a more mainstream and common extremist/terrorist: the white supremacist. Of course this is not always openly discussed as both Canada and the US have active politicians who were or are affiliated with white supremacists. Thus, we as a society are often distracted and deterred from focusing on the presence of a more mainstream and common threat. According to former violent extremists both the Jihadist and white supremacist narratives need to be attended to simultaneously in order to effectively respond to terrorism.
Government, policy makers, researchers and law enforcement know that Jihadist terrorists are a threat to Canadian public safety, and they are very correct. These threats are more than a reality, but we must be mindful that violent right wing extremists continue to pose a threat as well.
There does seem to be a gap in acknowledgement that these networks bind and twist together in a complex global entanglement of extremists and terrorists that may seem daunting to most people. Perhaps even unbelievable.
But, the good news is there are emerging networks of experts and activists responding to these issues. This article is only one of many more insights to come about the work that former extremists and survivors of extremist violence are working on together.
The FREE Initiative is a new and major project that brings together experts who were and have been directly affected by terrorism and violent extremism. This European initiative should be accessed and utilized by North American entities as well.
Together, we as a global society, can build safer communities by taking the time to understand how and why terrorist attacks occur; so that when those around are being silently radicalized we can recognize and report them immediately to the proper authorities. Early reporting provides opportunity for people like Mubin Shaikh, Tony Mac, Frank Meeink, TJ Leyden, Vidhya Ramalingam and myself to be called upon in order to facilitate interventions, counselling and, when needed, security and law enforcement intervention and responses.
Together, as a global community we can all contribute to decreasing the likelihood of terrorist attacks like 9/11.
If you would like more information about this work, please contact: www.againstviolentextremism.org