One Canadian Youth Recruited to ISIS is One Too Many - New Canadian Media

One Canadian Youth Recruited to ISIS is One Too Many

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest born of extremist movements, has drawn international condemnation and wonder about its power in drawing youth (Muslims and non-Muslims) from the western world to Syria and…

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest born of extremist movements, has drawn international condemnation and wonder about its power in drawing youth (Muslims and non-Muslims) from the western world to Syria and Iraq. Canada’s spy agency is reporting a dramatic spike in the number of Canadians joining the fight overseas.

It is estimated that more than 40 young men and women have left Canada to fight in Syria. This past January, at least six Montrealers were believed to have flown to Turkey and then crossed the borders into the Islamic State to join three others originally from Sherbrooke, Quebec, who left a few months earlier.

In March, a seventh Quebecer was believed to have joined his peers in Syria.

Presently, two young Montrealers, are facing four charges for an alleged terrorist plot in Quebec.

Research shows that discrimination and ostracism are radicalizing factors.

Research shows that discrimination and ostracism are radicalizing factors. Radicalized groups often use discourses around individual and collective grievances in order to recruit and radicalize youths. Individuals who perceive that their group is ostracized may experience increased hatred and a need to take revenge.

The massive and diversified recruitment in the West, and the rhetoric use of religion, fuels the sentiment of panic, feeds Islamophobia in the West and produces divisive effects, reinforcing perceptions of “us” and “them”. This, in turn, further feeds intercommunity tensions and negatively affects youth well being.

This highlights the urgent need for inclusive policies and for building solidarities among youth around citizenship.

‘We Never Saw it Coming’: Families

Many of the young people who violently radicalize in Canada seem to be university or college students, many of whom led what seemed to be normal lives before their departure. Contrary to stereotypes about who are often targeted, many of the youth who have left, were rather well integrated within their social networks, were achievers and came from well functioning families.

Whether it is ‘well functioning’ educated youth or those who feel disaffiliated from their Canadian society, the motives behind their departures are still not clear.

‘We never saw this coming,’ or comments like it, are often heard from families, friends and teachers alike.

Whether it is ‘well functioning’ educated youth or those who feel disaffiliated from their Canadian society, the motives behind their departures are still not clear.

Of all concerned by the departure of young adults, perhaps those affected most are parents, close relatives and friends. For many, the departure of their loved son, daughter or friend sometimes comes as an unpredictable, unexpected shock, coupled with the hurt and anxieties related to loss and lack of contact from the loved one.

But can we really predict the departure of youth?

The answer is complex – essentially, yes and no.

No, because research and clinical evidence show there is no such thing as a common profile or clear-cut indicators for youth who become violently radicalized.

Radicalized groups such as ISIS use a very large array of strategies of recruitment and gradually establish secrecy and then separate and isolate the youth from their networks and from significant others.

No, because ISIS, just like any violently radicalized group, targets youth who feel stigmatized and ‘othered’ by their societies. And even though ISIS, and groups like it, generates fear and horror, it is somehow appealing to youth’s idealism, perfectionism, search for belongingness, and sensation-seeking inclinations.

But, are there any indicators at all? Yes, because adults involved with youth can look for a number of alarming signs.

Radicalized groups such as ISIS use a very large array of strategies of recruitment and gradually establish secrecy and then separate and isolate the youth from their networks and from significant others.

For starters, a sudden intensity of rigid religiosity associated with notions of moral purity and superiority of the in-group is one sign.

In addition, a sudden intense romantic relation with someone abroad may be another indicator.

Some youth may start to express their personal identity in a manner that is fused with the ideology of the radical group and/or may become isolated from their peer group.

Finally, an increased hostility and mistrust towards previously trusted others at home or outside, as well as disengagement from larger society, may be an indicator to watch for.

Indeed, a youth’s identity should not be defined by his or her level of distance from, or assimilation to host society, nor by immigrant roots, but rather through his or her feeling that they can fully participate in Canadian society.

Bringing Back our Youth

Questions such as, ‘is ISIS Islamic at all?’ or ‘how far is the real Islam from ISIS?’ won’t help us change the minds of those who are thinking of leaving, nor will any counter-argument to prove the youth wrong.

The question then is how can we help?

[P]oliticians must guarantee that youth who have left and wish to, or can, come back will not be prosecuted, but rather offered protection and rehabilitation in order to re-integrate with their family and society.

Prevention and intervention programs must be multidimensional and include all the sectors of society: politicians and policy makers, the media, health and social services, colleges and universities, community and religious leaders, families and youth.

Perhaps most importantly, and in order to make the return possible, politicians must guarantee that youth who have left and wish to, or can, come back will not be prosecuted, but rather offered protection and rehabilitation in order to re-integrate with their family and society.

Additionally, parents need support in re-establishing contact with their youth and dealing with loss, fear of stigma, guilt, shame and shock. Community interventions and positive outreach programs need to help re-establish a safe and supportive environment for parents and youth.

The education sector should work on reducing polarisation of discourses among all members of society and improve youth and parents’ critical media literacy in becoming resilient and critical in the face of Internet and media. Teachers can work on increasing solidarities among youth and their ability to envision a positive citizenship in Canada.

“De-radicalization” programs must target all types and grounds of violent radicalization, including discrimination, alienation, humiliation, anger, and not just fundamentalist or violent ideologies; otherwise, the point will be missed.

One Canadian who has left to fight in Syria is one Canadian too many.

Our key to safety is restoring Canada’s strong welcoming model, and combating polarizing political discourses and religious and xenophobic extremisms, from all sides of the spectrum.

This will only be possible with a real engagement from the diverse stakeholders to make all possible efforts in order to collectively fight against discrimination, exclusion and systemic barriers to socio-economic progress in the Canadian society.

This can be done by reinforcing intercommunity cohesions and supporting youth in full citizenship participation within Canadian society regardless of their racial, religious, ethnic, educational, economical or migratory status.


Dr. Ghayda Hassan is a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at The Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and has several research affiliations. Her research is centered on four main areas of clinical cultural psychology: 1) Intervention in family violence & cultural diversity; 2) Identity, belonging and mental health of children and adolescents from ethnic/religious minorities; 3) Cohabitation, intercommunity relations and violent extremism; 4) Working with vulnerable immigrants and refugees.

Hicham Tiflati is an Islamic Studies instructor, and a PhD candidate in the department of religious studies at the UQAM. His academic and teaching interests include topics such as Western Muslim identities, integration, citizenship and the role of religious education in (re)shaping identity.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *