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Home-grown terrorism

FOR THOSE who have been following the evolution of Al Qaeda over the last few years, the news that Toronto could be the home of radical extremists bent on mass destruction is certainly disturbing, but not surprising. Since the attacks in London last summer, increasing attention has been paid to the issue of home-grown terrorism -- what produces it and what can be done to stop it. The threat of seemingly well-integrated youths plotting to kill large numbers of their fellow citizens for reasons of religious zeal first became real for Londoners last July. Now it is Toronto's turn.

Even at this early stage in the investigation, there are startling similarities between the London attacks and the disrupted Toronto plot, in which 17 people were arrested last week. Both groups appear to have traveled down the path of radicalization collectively, with members reportedly becoming more devout, serious, and in some cases withdrawn and depressed in their late teens.

Both groups consisted of primarily young males, inspired by an older leader. Social bonds emerged as an important element in the fusion of the London group, and in their decision to carry out a joint suicide attack -- such bonds of friendship and loyalty may ultimately prove a key factor in the Toronto plot as well. Empirical studies of radical Islamist terrorist networks have demonstrated the importance of friendship and social ties in the escalation of radical thinking and gravitation toward violence. These small groups often serve as incubators of radical ideology. Through increasing isolation from mainstream society and increasing intimacy between the group members, the social dynamics that maintain cohesion also drive radicalization.

The dynamics of radicalization are also driven by a jihadist narrative that is as global in scope as it is locally relevant. Early reports indicate that the Toronto jihadists were radicalized, in part, by a popular ideological narrative that pits a vanguard of pious Muslims against a global system created and maintained by a Western ``far enemy." Al Qaeda's narrative is successful because it targets vulnerable young Muslims, usually males, who can easily connect their local grievances to a global jihad.

The Toronto plot calls attention to the essence of this ideology -- a transnational package of beliefs that resonates strongly and dangerously with a small minority of the Muslim Diaspora in the West. In the minds of would-be jihadists, this narrative elevates their normal, mundane, everyday grievances to a profound level. It provides a rationale that seamlessly links identity confusion and personal confliction about the role of religion in one's life in a Western, secular society with alleged outrages against Muslims in distant conflicts from Bosnia to Chechnya and to Iraq.

Connections to the global jihad are as easy as logging onto the Internet. Indeed, the Internet played an important role for the Toronto network, acting as a powerful means for alienated Muslims to connect and create a virtual global community and as a critical strategic tool.

Of course, many Canadians, and Americans for that matter, are shocked to learn that a nearly operational jihadist ``cell" had been developing in the cosmopolitan and tolerant city of Toronto. Such a revelation will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of debate over immigration, integration, policies promoting multiculturalism, as well as a whole host of security issues. In the United States it is already causing alarm; Toronto is barely an hour from the border, after all.

But, although events like these always lead to intense self-reflection on the part of liberal democratic societies, it is important to direct attention toward the deeper and more global issue: In the reaction that produces home-grown terrorists, how many parts alienation and how many parts ideological seduction are required?

Anyone who has been to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga knows that it is a far cry from the ``banlieues" of France's impoverished Muslims or even Beeston -- the rundown residential area outside Leeds where three of the London bombers grew up, and where the group planned their attack.

As the investigation proceeds and a clearer picture of this cell emerges, it is important to place this event in a larger context. What has touched Toronto is an inherently global phenomenon, already well underway in Europe and elsewhere. Understanding why these indigenous jihadist cells emerge and how they operate now appears to be the face of the next chapter of the global war on terrorism.

Aidan Kirby and Shawn Brimley are analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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