Major Research Projects

Major Research Projects: Progress Reports

1. Talking to Foreign Fighters: Socio-economic Push versus Existential Pull Factors
2. The Role of Ideology and Violence in the Formation and Organization of Extremist Groups in Canada
3. Counter-Terrorism and the Rule of Law
4. On the Incorporation of Community Outreach and Engagement Strategies in National Security Operations: Community and Police Perspectives

Talking to Foreign Fighters: Socio-economic Push versus Existential Pull Factors

Leads: Lorne L. Dawson (University of Waterloo), Amarnath Amarasingam (Program on Extremism, George Washington University), Alexandra Bain, St. Thomas University

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has inspired an unprecedented surge of foreign fighters, drawn from a variety of countries from around the world, including 4,000-5,000 coming from Europe, North America, and Australia. This phenomenon has become a dominant security priority for the countries of these fighters and considerable efforts are being made to track and understand what is happening. This research represents one of the few efforts to acquire primary data on this issue by interviewing foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, their families, friends and associates, and other online supporters of jihadism.

The government says that “about 100 Canadians” have left to fight in Syria and Iraq. Drs. Dawson, Amarasingam, and Bain have confirmed the identity of 62 individuals and from May 2014 to March 2016 they conducted interviews with 130 people: 40 foreign fighters, 60 family members, friends and associates, and 30 online fans, recruiters, and potential fighters. An initial report summarizes the overall involvement of Canadians in the foreign fighter phenomenon, and the results of the analysis of 20 of the interviews with foreign fighters, 7 of whom were Canadians. In their initial report, TSAS Working Paper No. 16-14 (Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society), the researchers delineate how many Canadian foreign fighters have left in fairly distinct clusters, reflecting a pattern of mutual radicalization amongst small groups of largely young men. Such clusters have occurred in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. The researchers also begin the analysis of their interviews with fighters in Syria and Iraq, contrasting their findings with those of several other recent research reports on foreign fighters from The Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States.

A few other recent studies of foreign fighters, with some primary data, have concluded either that there is no clear profile of who is leaving or why, or that those leaving appear to be somewhat marginalized people with limited opportunities who are experiencing various forms of frustration in their lives. In fact one study argues that foreign fighters are drawn from a “no future subculture” amongst emerging adults in Europe and elsewhere. Proponents of this view downplay the significance of religion as a motivational factor. This analysis challenges this point of view. The individuals interviewed for this project run the spectrum from troubled youth with personal problems to accomplished young men and women from stable backgrounds. None of the twenty interviews analysed, however, report fighters coming from marginalized backgrounds. On the contrary, a third were well educated and most described themselves as having comfortable or, in some cases, luxurious lives before becoming radicalized. The interviewers interaction with these individuals was heavily mediated by religious ideas and language, creating the distinct impression that religion provides the dominant interpretive frame for making sense of almost every aspect of their lives. More accurately, it appears that “religiosity” is a primary motivator for their actions. This means their commitment to a religious worldview is what matters, and it is irrelevant whether their views are orthodox. The findings suggest that an existential quest for meaning and significance, and its fit with the jihadist ideology, is more crucial to the process of radicalization than is adequately acknowledged in the research literature.

The research is ongoing, with the analysis of the many remaining interviews, and the acquisition of new ones, set to continue until at least March 2017.

The Role of Ideology and Violence in the Formation and Organization of Extremist Groups in Canada

Leads: Aurélie Campana (Université Laval) and Samuel Tanner (Université de Montréal)

The project is designed to redress two deficiencies in the research literature, especially with regard to Canada: (i) the insufficient understanding of how violent extremist groups form and organize (e.g., Crenshaw 2001; Joosse 2007; Asal and Rethmeyer 2008), and (ii) the preoccupation with Islamist extremism post 9/11. The focus is on violent right-wing, left-wing and anti-globalization groups in Canada, which according to CSIS (CSIS 2012), pose “serious threats” to national security. Primary data will be acquired through interviews with members of the groups in conjunction with the analysis of documents. In the first cycle of research three important and somewhat neglected questions will be the primary focus: (1) the role of ideology in the formation and evolution of groups (Maynard 2014); (2) the way in which tactical and other key decisions are made; and (3) how violence operates as a tactic, strategy, and structuring mechanism for these groups (Tanner and Campana 2014). A second cycle of research will address a further question: how these groups use the internet for networking, recruitment, and the dissemination of their ideology, methods, and savoir-faire. Preliminary results on right-wing extremist groups in the Province of Quebec (funded by a Kanishka Project grant) demonstrated that the internet and social media have become the primary means by which Canadian groups develop networks with their counterparts in the U.S., Europe, and Russia (Tanner, Campana and Simon, 2015). This development has yet to be adequately addressed in the empirical research literature, and the role these virtual networks play in the radicalization of members of these groups.


Asal, Victor and R. Karl Rethmeyer. 2008. “The Nature of the Beast: Organizational Structures and the Lethality of Terrorist Attacks.” The Journal of Politics 70: 437-449.

Crenshaw, Martha. 2001. “Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches,” in David C. Rapoport, ed., Inside Terrorist Organizations. (2nd edition) London: Frank Cass, pp. 13-30.

CSIS. 2012. “2012 Domestic Threat Environment in Canada (Part I): Left-Wing/Right-Wing Extremism,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Intelligence Assessment, CSIS IA 2011-12/115, 23 March 2012, reproduced and available from

Maynard, Jonathan L. 2014. “Rethinking the Role of Ideology in Mass Atrocities,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26 (2014): (advanced online publication Feb. 25th).

Joosse, Paul. 2007. “Leaderless Resistance and Ideological Inclusion: the Case of the Earth Liberation Front.” Terrorism and Political Violence 19: 351-368.

Tanner, Samuel and Aurélie Campana. 2014. “The Process of Radicalization: Right-Wing Skinheads in Quebec.” TSAS Working Paper 14-07. Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.

Tanner, Samuel, Aurélie Campana and Clémentine Simon. 2015. « (Dés)organisation et dynamiques identitaires du mouvement skinhead au Québec : une étude exploratoire », R. Boivin (dir.) Réseaux illicites, Presses de l’Université de Montréal

Counter-Terrorism and the Rule of Law


Leads: Craig Forcese (University of Ottawa) and Graham Hudson (Ryerson University)

This project is designed to address an array of different but related questions relating to the law and counter-terrorism in Canada: To what extent is law a facilitator of effective counter-terrorism? Does the coverage of Canada’s anti-terrorism laws reflect the societal phenomena of terrorism? Are the legal tools available responsive to contemporary demands of anti-terrorism, or is law an impediment to responsive solutions? Especially given the pace of change in operational law, does law provide enough certainty and predictability to govern state conduct effectively? Are there sufficient checks and balances to ensure that counter-terrorism practices do not create pernicious second-order effects? For example, how can law better serve the purpose of anti-terrorism while honouring Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights law? Have Canada’s systems of oversight and review of security and intelligence agencies kept pace with the increased size and operational tempo of those agencies?

In the 2016-2018 period Professor Forcese has two research priorities:

  • The development, mandate and responsibilities of parliamentary review bodies in the area of intelligence and security and their interaction with specialized, expert review bodies.
  • The manner in which intelligence may be used as criminal evidence in “Five Eyes” countries, and the effect criminal justice trial disclosure models have on the organization and effectiveness of national security agencies.

Work has begun on the first priority topic and in Spring 2016 Professor Forcese co-authored a working paper on reformed national security accountability review with Professor Kent Roach of the University of Toronto: “Bridging the National Security Accountability Gap: A Three-Part System to Modernize Canada’s Inadequate Review of National Security,” TSAS Working Paper No. 16-04 (Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society).  Since then, the government introduced to parliament Bill C-22, National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Act.

Through the Fall of 2016, Professor Forcese will examine this legislative proposal and related issues in national security review reform. In this regard, Forcese and Roach are redrafting the Working Paper as a law review article. In addition they have recorded two “explainer” videos on national security review: Nutshell Primer: National Security Accountability Review in Canada and 10 Minute Primer: Assessment of National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Functions.

In the longer term Professor Forcese will be working with graduate students on the larger task of developing a comparative analysis of the operating procedures and design of parliamentary review bodies in Westminster democracies. This research may help inform the design of such a review body in Canada once Parliament enacts Bill C-22.

Professor Hudson has two projects set for the 2016-2018 period:

  • Analyzing the expansion and diversification of “secret trials” or closed material proceedings in Canada and the UK. With Prof. Daniel Alati, he also will review the constitutional/human rights challenges, administrative support and practices, training programs, and ethical/professional issues related to these proceedings in the two jurisdictions.
  • Examine the securitization of irregular migration, in comparative perspective. With Professors Idil Atak and Delphine Nakache, Professor Hudson will explore the unintended effects, and human rights ramifications, of measures aimed at preventing and deterring irregular migration. Canadian laws, policies, and practices will be compared with those of the UK and the EU.

Thus far, this project has yielded one publication: Graham Hudson “As Good as it Gets? Security, Asylum and the Rule of Law After the Certificate Trilogy” (2016) 52:3 Osgoode Hall Law Journal 905 In the Fall and Winter of 2016/2017, Professors Hudson and Alati will draft an article reviewing the special advocate system in Canada.

On the Incorporation of Community Outreach and Engagement Strategies in National Security Operations:  Community and Police Perspectives

Leads: Sandra Bucerius (University of Alberta) and Sara Thompson (Ryerson University)

In the name of national security, law enforcement agencies in Canada, as in other nations, have recognized the importance of working cooperatively with communities, and have implemented a variety of outreach programs to establish and maintain relationships characterized by mutual trust (Hanniman 2008; Murphy 2005; Mythen and Kamruzzaman 2011; Spalek and Lambert 2009a, b). These programs are varied in their mode of delivery: some law enforcement agencies conduct outreach programs with a singular mandate to build relationships with communities, while others have an additional investigatory and enforcement mandate. Yet ethno-cultural communities in Canada consistently report their relationship with law enforcement to be tenuous at best, which makes the establishment of partnerships and trust difficult (Chow 2012, 2011; Fitzgerald & Carrington 2011; Hanniman 2008; O’Connor 2009). To date, very little research has been done on the efficacy of different types of community outreach in the context of counter-terrorism, though the literature on community policing more generally suggests that some initiatives are more effective than others (Hanniman 2008; Mythen and Kamruzzaman 2011; Mythen et al. 2013; Spalek et al. 2009c). A key aim of this research is to examine how outreach initiatives are perceived by the communities they affect, and how these perceptions may be shaping their views of the legitimacy of Canadian institutions and/or radical organizations. This research will also highlight “best practices” as identified by relevant ethno-cultural communities.

At this point (summer 2016) the data collection, in the form of interviews with police officers (including senior police managers) and focus groups with youth and young adults (age 16-30) in Toronto, Edmonton, and Lower Mainland, BC is nearing completion and the transcription process has begun. Analysis will begin in late 2016 and early 2017.


Chow, H. P. H. 2011. “Adolescent attitudes toward the police in a western Canadian city.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 34(4): 638-653.

Chow, H. P. H. 2012. “Attitudes towards police in Canada: a study of perceptions of university students in a western Canadian city.” International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences 7 (1): 508-523.

Fitzgerald, R. T., Carrington, P. J. 2011. “Disproportionate minority contact in Canada: police and visible minority youth.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 53(4): 449-486.

Hanniman, W. 2008. “Canadian Muslims, Islamophobia and National Security Royal Canadian Mounted Police.” International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice 36 (4): 271-285.

Murphy, Christopher. 2005. “Securitizing Community Policing: towards a Canadian public policing model.” The Canadian Review of Policing Research 1:

Mythen G. and Kamruzzaman P. 2011. “Counter-terrorism and Community Relations: Anticipatory Risk, Regulation and Justice,” in H. Quick, T. Seddon and G. Smith, eds., Regulation and Criminal Justice: Developing a New Framework for Research and Policy Development. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

O’Connor, C. D. 2009. “Citizen attitudes toward the police in Canada.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 31(4): 578-595.

Spalek, Basia. 2007. “Disconnection and Exclusion: Pathways to Radicalisation?” In Islamic Political Radicalism: A European Perspective, ed., Tahir Abbas, 192-206. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.