In The Media

The new face of extremists

by Geoffrey Johnston (feat. Kyle Matthews)
October 29, 2015

The world is changing rapidly. Social media has revolutionized the way in which we communicate, bringing people from around the globe together to share ideas and information and sometimes even hateful genocidal ideologies.

The digital revolution has spurred the rapid growth and expansion of once marginal extremists groups. Although nation-states remain the primary actors in the international system, extremist non-state actors now possess the capabilities to wreak havoc and commit mass atrocities in many parts of the world.

"In the past, we've seen a lot of nationalist crimes committed by governments," said Kyle Matthews, a Montreal-based expert on human rights, religious extremism, social media and international issues. For example, Nazi Germany carried out the Holocaust during the Second World War, and Turkey perpetrated the Armenian Genocide in 1915.

Nation-states still kill more people than violent non-state actors, because they have more power and greater capabilities to decimate or destroy a group. "But we are seeing a spike in non-state actors" committing mass atrocities, said Matthews, who is the senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Jihadist groups "are seen to be on an eternal path towards war and violence," Matthews said. For instance, violent non-state actors, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, are now carrying out crimes against humanity. And in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is slaughtering Assyrian Christians, Yezidis and other ancient minority communities.

Troubling difference

Matthews is on the cutting edge of research into how extremists use social media to brainwash people and disseminate propaganda. He is the founder of the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab, a new project that examines social media and extremism. The initiative aims "to counter extremism online and improve public policy."

There is a significant difference between nation-states and non-state actors when it comes to claiming responsibility for mass murder. "What is very troubling is that many people in the past would hide their atrocities," Matthews said of murderous regimes. "They would deny them; they would bury them."

"It's now the opposite," he said of extremist organizations that commit mass murder in the social media age. "There are groups that are broadcasting them online. There are videos showcasing them, using them as a weapon of war to scare the opposition. It is quite different."

Mass atrocities in the 21st century are even being used as a marketing tool for jihadist groups seeking to attract new recruits. "They are using this to really call out to more radical people out there that get excited enough to participate in this mass orgy of violence," Matthews asserted.

What role does ideology play in mass atrocities perpetrated by non-state actors? "I think ideology is the main driving factor," Matthews said. Like the secular Nazi and Communist ideologies of the 20th century, religiously motivated Islamist ideology is driving extremists to target large groups of people in the 21st century.

"My argument and recommendation are that if you really want to nip this in the bud," Matthews said, "you have to deal with the ideology behind it."

Canada is not immune to Islamism. Dozens of young Canadian Muslims have travelled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State. And last year, Canadian jihadists, in separate incidents, murdered Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.

When it comes to countering Islamist ideology, there are no easy answers. "It's complicated," conceded Matthews. "It raises certain difficult questions that societies don't want to talk about. It raises issues that are not always seen as politically correct."

Can governments counter Islamist ideology in the digital age? "I think there's a lot that can be done," Matthews replied. For example, he recommends that government "use education to block out ideologies or ideas that are totally against pluralism and equality of the sexes."

Government should also fund organizations that are attempting to combat extremist ideologies on social media. "Because right now," Matthews said, "we're not seeing a very strong or well-funded counter ideology program in place."

Identifying extremism in Canadian society and taking action to counter it are also important. "There are a whole bunch of steps," Matthews said, "but the first is having a rational discussion on what the problem is and identifying it. Then you can make better policies."

Have Canadians had a rational discussion about violent extremism and radical ideology? "No, I don't think we have," Matthews answered. "The media are sometimes not mentioning what is the ideology exactly."

Matthews cited last week's media coverage of the first anniversary of the murders of Cirillo and Vincent as evidence of journalists' reluctance to even mention Islamist ideology. Matthews pointed to a CBC broadcast that merely stated that the killers had been "radicalized."

"But they didn't say anything else," he said. "So, it leaves the average Canadian wondering, what does 'radicalized' mean? Are they radical environmentalists? Are they radicalized atheists?"

Ignoring the religious ideology that motivates some people to commit murder is problematic.

"We can't have a real discussion about the real world without being able to name or shame people in the world who are committing bad acts and violating rights," Matthews said. And he dismisses calls by activists to scrap the terms Islamism and Islamist as deliberate attempts to "shut down legitimate discussion."

Unfortunately, issues surrounding radical Islam became politicized during the recent federal election campaign. "I think it set us back in actually having a rational, mature discussion on it," Matthews said.

Quitting the fight

Incoming Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to withdraw Canada's six CF-18 jets from the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Is that the right decision? "I don't think so," Matthews replied. "I think we should stay with it."

Acknowledging the complexity of the conflict, including Russia's military intervention in Syria, Matthews believes that U.S.-led coalition's air strikes are making an impact. He referred to the pivotal role that U.S. air power played in breaking the 2014 siege of Mount Sinjar in Syria, where thousands of Yezidis were encircled by genocidal Islamic State forces.

"We had the same thing in the town of Kobane in northern Syria, where air strikes against ISIS allowed ground forces in that city to prepare its defensive positions and let civilians escape," he said. "To say that air power hasn't done anything is, I think, a lie."

Matthews reminds the new Trudeau government that past Liberal governments worked with western allies to stop genocide. "If you look back at the Canadian tradition, we have done this before," he said, citing the example of the 1999 air campaign to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

In addition, Matthews wants the new government to remember that the UN Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine was "brought to the forefront of international affairs" by a previous Liberal government.

"You must use military force when all other avenues of diplomacy, of soft power aspects, have failed," Matthews said of R2P. "And I really can't see how diplomacy, how economic sanctions are going to have an impact (on ISIS)."

Matthews was quick to point out that other western countries are joining the campaign against the Islamic State, including France, Denmark and Sweden. "I hope the Liberals will support R2P and not leave most of the heavy lifting to our allies."


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