Don’t take your eyes off right-wing extremists, Canada

With a surge in far-right movements, security agencies need to keep better tabs at home and coordinate at the international level, argues Steven Zhou.

By: /
July 6, 2018
Mosque vigil
People hold signs during a vigil after the Quebec City mosque shooting in Montreal, Quebec, January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Dario Ayala

It shouldn’t have taken six dead Muslims at the hands of a right-wing extremist last January for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to be reminded that far-right politics adds up to more than just “lawful protest, advocacy, and dissent” in Canada.

According to the Security Intelligence Review Committee’s (SIRC) latest annual report, released on May 31, CSIS ceased a major investigation into far-right extremism 10 months before the Quebec City mosque mass shooting, when six were killed by Alexandre Bissonnette in January, 2017. The assumption was that right-wing extremism was more of a “public order threat” than a national security one, and that the vast majority of far-right activism amounted to no more than lawful (or nearly lawful) dissent and advocacy.

One can’t help but place such an assessment (CSIS resumed their investigation after the Quebec City shooting) within the naïve liberal interpretation of neo-fascism as just another civil voice in the public square. Even overly generous definitions of the “alt-right” as a multidimensional, big-tent movement can’t totally whitewash growing factions calling for a “white ethno-state,” along with their more careful allies who’ve tried hard to smuggle racist ideas into the mainstream.

If radical Muslims are perceived to be dangerous enough to attract CSIS informants into mosques (according to multiple imams and at least one CSIS mole), then it’s a mystery why radical right-wingers, some of whom are brazen enough to openly pontificate on popular podcasts, shouldn’t attract similar levels of scrutiny from Canada’s security regime.

One reason might be that today’s “alt-right”— modern neo-Nazis who consistently repackage racism with more acceptable dog-whistle messages — does the bulk of its organizing and communicating online. The anonymity and in-group jargon associated with this kind of organizing gives it an air of informality. A lot of what’s said might be irrelevant, “big talk,” or simply nonsensical. This might make discerning the seriously dangerous stuff among a big pile of digital babble seem impractical and tedious.

But this in no way invalidates monitoring neo-fascists online. Those on the far right, much like active and vocal sympathizers of ISIS-style extremism, should attract attention from security entities almost by definition, even if they don’t actually engage in real violence. This isn’t to say that Canadian intelligence is not engaging at all in online monitoring and other related tactics. CSIS has resumed its investigation but they have not revealed what that entails in detail. One can only hope that a more in-depth awareness of how the far right organizes online is a central aspect of their overall understanding of the problem.

"The degree to which far-right politics have surged should prompt more discussion at the international level. This pattern should be addressed in forums like the NATO Summit next week."

Recent reporting on internal communiqués between CSIS, Public Safety Canada, and the RCMP shows that there have been disagreements between them on the definition of far-right extremism, as well as the level of danger it poses as a national security threat. CSIS seems skeptical that far-right extremism presents a rising terrorism threat in the way that ISIS-inspired groups or individuals do. Nonetheless, growing calls for a white ethno-state that fall just short of calling for explicit violence should attract more monitoring, not less. CSIS shouldn’t need tragedies like Quebec City to alert them to this reality.

Take a look at journalists who’ve had great success with tracking dangerous neo-Nazis online. Recent exposés by the Montreal Gazette and Vice Canada have uncovered the identities of some of the most dangerous and prolific neo-Nazi organizers in Canada. The reports indicate that a large portion of the work done to track down these odious figures was done online. And if journalists working on a limited budget can achieve this through their own methods, it’s hard to imagine that Canada’s security agencies, armed with technical and legal weapons, aren’t capable of something similar.

The kind of tracking that these journalists have done should be incorporated to some degree in terms of how security agencies look at and deal with far-right threats in the near future. Whatever steps CSIS and other agencies decide to take next, tracking the mobilization and activities of these groups both online and elsewhere should be a sustained priority.

The degree to which far-right politics have surged throughout the West should also prompt more discussion at the international level. The German military is investigating its ranks for neo-Nazi sympathies. Ukraine has also seen a rise in neo-Nazi activities in recent years. This pattern should be addressed in forums like the NATO Summit in Brussels next week.

In addition to the online nature of the problem, in Canada’s case specifically, another reason that dealing with right-wing extremism might seem messy and complicated from a national security standpoint is that Canada’s Criminal Code defines terrorism as violence that’s tied to a religious, political, or ideological purpose. The “alt-right,” with its numerous factions and often-confusing layers of dog-whistle messaging, often resists one-dimensional definitions or simple ideological categories. This is in contrast to something like Muslim extremism, which, since the immediate post-9/11 years, seems to have crystalized in the popular imagination as a distinctively dangerous movement with a clear set of practices and goals.

But again, it’s simply the role of those responsible for maintaining public safety to disentangle the different threads that make up today’s larger far-right fabric. One strand might look and behave differently from the others, but simply knowing is part of the battle. Neo-Nazis like those recently exposed by journalists at Vice Canada are remarkably clear — just like Bissonnette, the Quebec City shooter — when it comes to articulating a political purpose or worldview. But one wouldn’t know it if the choice is to simply look elsewhere and drop the ball entirely.

None of this is to say that the Quebec shooting and similar crimes happened because CSIS stopped its investigation. According to the SIRC, CSIS reported that local and regional law enforcement often picked up where it left off when it comes to far-right activities. But CSIS also reported that liaising with these local forces as it resumed its investigation post-Quebec City has helped to close a lot of gaps in its understanding of the extreme right.

All of this suggests that whatever shape the far-right takes in the near future won’t be adequately understood unless the country’s security forces, with the help of civil society groups, keep monitoring and studying the relevant groups and individuals that make up the movement. Running into problems and impracticalities along the way is better than not doing anything at all.