The self-radicalized terrorist next door

Michael Friscolanti on the road to radicalization and the Canada Day arrests in B.C.

The terrorist next door

Jonathan Hayward/CP

Saad Gaya was born in Quebec and raised in Ontario. He loved the Montreal Canadiens, excelled in high school and earned a science scholarship to McMaster University. When police arrested him that June afternoon in 2006, machine guns aimed at his chest, the scrawny 18-year-old was inside a warehouse, unloading a truck full of what he thought was ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Smart, respectful and Canadian to the core, Gaya had become convinced that detonating bombs in his home country was a rational response to Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

“I am not someone who has grown up in a hate-soaked environment, brainwashed to believe that I am part of some eternal war against the Western civilization,” Gaya told the judge at his 2009 sentencing hearing. “I was young and politically naive. Today, however, I recognize how irrational and unreasonable this line of thought was.” A central member of the so-called “Toronto 18,” Gaya remains behind bars, serving an 18-year prison term.

Sadly—for him, and for national security agencies—Gaya’s story is hardly an isolated one. Although al-Qaeda’s base has been decimated, its leader buried at sea, the allure of Osama bin Laden’s network continues to inspire a new breed of ?“homegrown” wannabes in North America and Europe: young, Western, “self-radicalized” Muslims so enamoured with al-Qaeda’s poisonous narrative that they are determined to commit spectacular violence in the name of Allah. In recent months, Canadians have read plenty of headlines about homegrown terrorism, from the two men from London, Ont., who attacked an Algerian gas plant, to a plot to derail a Via Rail train, allegedly concocted with the “guidance and direction” of al-Qaeda elements in Iran.

But more than a decade after 9/11—and dozens of homegrown plots later—the experts still aren’t exactly certain why someone like Saad Gaya would, in his words, participate in such a “shameful crime.” If the growing caseload has revealed anything, it’s that the road to radicalization is so individualized, so personal, that there is no reliable psychological profile for Islamist extremism. “The search for patterns and trends on radicalization remains elusive,” says a 2011 report prepared by CSIS, Canada’s spy agency. “The Service assesses that, while more information will help to further understand individual paths to radicalization, it is unlikely that a model will be achieved.”

And that was before the RCMP thwarted a supposed Canada Day bomb plot outside the B.C. legislature, arresting, at first glance, the unlikeliest of suspects: John Nuttall, 38, a failed punk-rock guitarist and recovering drug addict who recently converted to Islam; and his 29-year-old common-law wife, Amanda Korody, an apparent former prostitute with a reported history of mental health problems. (Their alleged scheme—“inspired by al-Qaeda ideology,” the Mounties say—involved numerous Boston Marathon-style pressure cookers loaded with rusty nails, nuts and bolts.)

“What we can take away from these cases is that virtually every one of them is unique,” says professor Wesley Wark, a terrorism and intelligence expert at the University of Ottawa. “Be very careful when trying to connect dots that may not be connectable.”

For years, analysts have been trying to connect those dots, anxious to determine whether homegrown extremists share any psychological traits. “Studies into their social backgrounds discovered, to put it in a nutshell, that most of the people involved are remarkably ordinary,” says Lorne L. Dawson, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. “When you look at the material in general, you start to discover there are definitely patterns. The problem is, the patterns suggest that these guys aren’t all that exceptional. They’re not anybody in the population, but they’re not exactly some special, strange group of people, either.”

In nearly every case, the motivation is the same: a desire to strike at the perceived enemy, in glorious fashion. “The message that the world is fundamentally ‘at war’ with Islam is key to the Islamist ‘single narrative’—or ‘one-size-fits-all explanation’—that drives terrorism the world over,” says a 2009 report from the RCMP, entitled “Radicalization: a guide for the perplexed.” “The romance of this unequal struggle may be especially appealing to young Muslims, who feel both justified and compelled to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters against the powerful forces arrayed against them.”

But the few Muslims who actually answer that extremist call do not fit into one neat category. As the CSIS report concludes, the journey from radical thought to radical action “is a very idiosyncratic, individual process.”

“In all these cases, we can speak to certain patterns, we can speak to certain motivations, and we can show how they are analogous to other situations,” Dawson says. “In each case, though, what we lack are the details from these people’s lives, of exactly what they were thinking. ‘What were you thinking at the moment you decided this was the path you were going to pursue?’ ”

Gaya, for one, was determined to scare the federal government into pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. And while his co-conspirators were equally determined, each carried his own psychological baggage. Saad Khalid, who was arrested with Gaya as they unloaded the fertilizer, turned to radical Islam after the sudden death of his mother. Speaking to a psychiatrist in jail, Khalid said he developed a fierce “connection toward the Muslim cause” and an “increased sense of meaning” after his mother died. The group’s ringleader, 20-year-old Zakaria Amara, grew up in a broken home and dreamed of becoming an Islamic scholar. But when the University of Medina rejected his application, the “daily drudgery of working in dead-end, low-paying jobs helped to create an intellectually stunted environment,” his psychiatrist wrote. “Internet jihad videos became more exciting and their causes became more urgent.” As Amara told his psychiatrist: “When you’re young, you think you’re in or out, black and white.”

Fahim Ahmad, who also pleaded guilty to his role in the Toronto 18 conspiracy, told the court he spiralled into a “fantasy world” fuelled by online instigators and a driving desire to feel “larger than life.”

“To be sure, the religious ideology is a component of their actions, but it does not appear to be a key component,” says Brian Michael Jenkins, a leading terrorism specialist. “Instead, the attributes that emerge again and again are anger, desire for collective revenge, feelings of humiliation, desire to demonstrate manhood, to join a warrior elite, to participate in an epic struggle. And the one that recurs is personal crisis. For a lot of these young men, the ideology has become a conveyor of individual discontent. Terrorism has become a solution to an unsatisfactory life.”

Are John Nuttall and Amanda Korody the latest examples? The answer remains many months away, when the full scope of their alleged crime is revealed in court. “I know I’m being very speculative, but in this case, I think we’re really dealing more with personal motivation and personal issues than we are true commitment to a radical ideology,” Dawson says. “I think, in the end, we’re probably going to discover that the jihadi narrative was more pretext than real motivator, and that this is just—and I hate to say it—another loser in his basement striking out at the world.”

Another unique, distinct loser.