Why terrorism can grow in any soil—including our own

Residents of London, Ont., are so reliably Canadian in their tastes and demographics that they’re frequently used as test subjects for product launches. Everything from Chicken McNuggets to automated bank machines to satellite television was tested first in this southwestern Ontario city of 366,000 residents before being unleashed on the rest of the country.

Now, however, it appears this predictably average Canadian locale has become the springboard for a new and very worrisome activity.

Last week, former London residents Ali Medlej and Xristos Katsiroubas were publicly identified as participants in the al-Qaeda attack this past January on a natural-gas plant in Algeria that left 29 insurgents and 39 hostages dead. Both young men, aged 24 and 22, respectively, were friends at London South Collegiate Institute. And like their hometown, their upbringing seems, from the outside, utterly average. Medlej played football and was known for being boisterous and having a quick temper. Katsiroubas, raised in a Greek Orthodox family, was quieter but enjoyed road hockey and video games. A third friend, Aaron Yoon of Korean-Catholic descent, was similarly recognizable as a typical teen.

Today, Medlej and Katsiroubas are dead and Yoon is in a Mauritanian jail serving a two-year sentence for ties to a radical terror group.

The notion that three middle-class kids from diverse religious backgrounds attending high school in an average Canadian city could become radicalized to this extent raises big, uncomfortable questions for all Canadians.

Responses have ranged from incredulity to accusations of incompetence aimed at law-enforcement agencies. A Vancouver Sun editorial last week claimed the incident reflects poorly on all Canadians: “We failed to prevent an international terrorist movement from recruiting our young men, and we failed to prevent them from taking human life.”

So how did London come to export terrorists to Africa? And do the deaths of Medlej and Katsiroubas really point to a failure within the Canadian security establishment, or society at large?

If the upbringings of Medlej and Katsiroubas seem remarkably unremarkable, this comes as no surprise to Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society and chairman of the department of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo. He says most homegrown terrorists share similarly unassuming backgrounds.

Katsiroubas’s bio, for instance, closely resembles that of Zachary Chesser, a white-bread American kid from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, who also converted to Islam in high school (changing his name to Zakariyya) and then immersed himself in online radicalism. He’s currently serving a 25-year terrorism sentence in a federal U.S. penitentiary.

The descent into homegrown terror among North American youths is typically an internal journey driven by teenaged disaffection and anger. It has little to do with geography, religion or heritage, says Dawson. “Individuals drawn to radicalization have a desire to take action and do something significant,” he notes, drawing on in-depth studies of other domestic terrorists. “At the same time, they see the world in black-and-white terms and seek to align themselves with a virtuous cause.”

This mix of moral absolutism and adventure-seeking is a rare and dangerous combination, although one that isn’t necessarily unique to our era. The same powers of attraction that drew Canadians to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s are present in the appeal to engage in the Islamist struggle today. In the absence of jihad, observes Dawson, it’s conceivable the London pair could have found themselves attracted to eco-terrorism, or some other source of perceived righteousness. “There is almost nothing authorities can do about this,” says Dawson.

While Medlej and Katsiroubas seem to have turned strict in their religious observances while living in Canada, that isn’t against the law. CSIS and the RCMP were apparently aware of the pair as early as 2007. And yet, if they only became fully engaged in extremist behaviour once they left Canada for Africa, as currently seems the case, there’s little room to blame domestic security agencies. Canadian citizens can travel as they please. (While the Senate is currently considering a bill that would make it an offence to leave the country to commit a terror act, such a law would still require proof to precipitate an arrest.)

As long as Canadians value their freedom of movement, it will remain impossible to stop every future terrorist from leaving the country years before they become fully radicalized. In some ways, the case of Medlej and Katsiroubas might even be seen as a qualified success for Canada’s intelligence agencies, in the same way as the treatment of the Toronto 18 terror gang in 2006. Both were identified early, and neither managed to engage in terrorism on Canadian soil. The tragedy is that Medlej and Katsiroubas seemed to move on and disappear.

As for society’s responsibilities, recognition is first due to London’s Muslim community for quickly expressing shock at the revelations. Rob Osman, chairman of the London Muslim Mosque, said his organization “unequivocally condemns violent extremism of any kind.” And everyone else now has a much greater appreciation for the fact radicalization can spring from any background or religious heritage. The only effective solution is continued vigilance and a commitment to the Canadian values of freedom, tolerance and openness.

The tale of the London teens is certainly a tragedy. But it’s not necessarily a failure for Canada.