ISIS is watching us
by Michael Zekulin
January 5, 2015
Last month, another video threatening Canada emerged. The individual tasked with delivering ISIS’s message was Ottawa-born John Maguire, a convert to Islam. While the story could focus on another radicalized young Canadian, this video provides us with some insight into ISIS’s strategies moving forward. The most important takeaway is that ISIS is watching us. They are measuring us and challenging us.
Lately, much has been made about the idea of counter-narratives, of the need to challenge the propaganda and ideas that ISIS spreads. This, however, works both ways and based on some of the messages within this recording, there is ample evidence suggesting ISIS is pursuing their own counter-narrative strategy. ISIS is sophisticated; they evolve and adapt and they tailor their messages to our responses and playing on Canadian developments, narratives and perceptions. Consider the following three messages.
First, ISIS goes to great lengths to emphasize Canadians’ approval of our government’s decision to participate in U.S.-led airstrikes. ISIS wants to create the narrative that this is our fault; we have forced ISIS to attack us and they are more than happy to “blame the victims.” This logic suggests that innocents (civilians, non-combat role soldiers) are legitimate targets because in democracies, we elect our leaders. As such, we bear the responsibility when they pursue certain policies. This is a common tactic employed by terrorist groups that allows them to diffuse responsibility for their actions. They also disingenuously offer us a way to avoid being attacked — by pressuring our governments to change their policies. This illogic serves a secondary purpose: it provides potential supporters a justification to become involved.
The second message involves a direct appeal to Muslims living in Canada who are questioning their support of a country that would oppress them. Supporting this assertion are references to the increased surveillance and detention powers our government has publicly suggested it will legislate. Canada is not to be trusted; our government is targeting Muslims, and the only option is for people to move to the Islamic State or target Canada and Canadians. Once again, ISIS offers potential supporters a contrasting vision, twisting part of Canada’s legislative response into a catalyst for discontent to serve their own ends.
John Maguire’s performance was over the top, waxing nostalgic about his life growing up in Canada. Some argued this was a clumsy effort that would fail to resonate with potential Muslim recruits in Canada. However, this was not its intent. ISIS places tremendous value on individuals who, like Maguire, are converts to Islam. These individuals would identify with Maguire’s stereotypical representation of Canadian life.
More importantly, however, ISIS’s third message is about “normalcy.” The predominant narrative that emerged following October’s attacks (and continues today) is that the two terror attacks that rocked Canada last October, where Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent were killed, were perpetrated by individuals with troubled and/or criminal pasts, and a history of mental distress. This is an oversimplification and misrepresentation.
While criminality and mental illness were present in the two people responsible for the October attacks, they are outliers. Analyzing larger samples of terrorists and radicalized individuals demonstrates that for the most part the majority are remarkably normal and do not demonstrate any significant abnormal characteristics. Our default position when trying to understand something as complex as radicalization and terrorism is to find simple explanations. Those responsible must be troubled and unstable, we say, because “normal people” could not do this. This part of Maguire’s message directly challenges these assumptions. The goal is to impress upon Canadians that those who support ISIS, like him, were in fact average everyday Canadians. If we believe that our next attacker could be anyone, ISIS will have succeeded in their efforts to demoralize us by escalating our fears and anxiety.
Yes, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of creating counter-narratives to challenge ISIS’s messaging. But we must recognize that ISIS is developing counter-narratives to Canadian messaging. The fact that they are responding to what we are saying and doing shows how critical this strategy really is.
Michael Zekulin is a fellow of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. His paper “Canada’s New Challenges Facing Terrorism at Home” was recently published by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.