Radicalization and Terrorism

Desperation, Vulnerability, and Chaos

The world became a less safe place after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, and even more so after the terrorist attacks in Southern Israel on October 7, 2023.  The terrorist attack in 2001 saw just under 3,000 Americans lose their life that day and an additional 20,000 Americans two decades later as a result of cancers from the dust and debris, but that terrorist attack led to a total human loss of life close to 1,000,000 people.  In comparison, the terrorist attack in 2023 has resulted in over 6,000 Israelis being killed or wounded thus far, but that terrorist attack is likely to lead to even more Palestinian lives being lost, and there is the potential for an entire continent to be consumed by war and for the total loss of human life to far surpass that of the terrorist attack in 2001.

What tends to complicate radicalization and terrorism is that desperation and vulnerability should be seen as being part of a decentralized vacuum in the sense that the conditions of desperation and vulnerability only need to be near a person for terrorist groups to exploit and to radicalize them and have them carry out terrorist attacks.  Some of that has to do with how technology has allowed for terrorist groups to be more far-reaching and productive, because they no longer need to have a physical presence and can operate in zoned networks or in complete isolation.  Also as a result of technology, terrorist groups have been able to become more dynamic in adapting to the safety and security measures that are in place to protect against them, finding ways to bypass these measures to carry out their attacks.

Seeing just how effective small terrorist groups can be when operating in the decentralized vacuums of desperation and vulnerability and how easily they create chaos leading to massive numbers of human lives being lost, should be enough reason for countries to understand why the safety and security of the global community requires that everyone cooperates with each other.  Because these dots should have been connected by every nation of the global community the first time around in 2001: that these terrorist groups are completely motivated by self-interest and that they are content with an uncountable number of human lives being lost as a result of their actions.  Whether it is half-way around the world in another country or in their own country of birth they are operating from, they do not care for any of the people that lose their lives, as long as they get to live.

A night with the families impacted by the terror attacks in Israel.

Unbeknownst to the majority of people in Ottawa, there was a special event organized by Ottawa’s Jewish community where some of the families who were directly affected by the terrorist attack in Southern Israel would be sharing their stories.  The event was organized at a nearby synagogue that was built in 1973, and it was a limited-size event that required pre-registering. It turned out to be quite small and with quite a bit of security.

Listening to those families speak, some whose roots stretched to Canada’s Prairies, about the tragic loss of life because of the terrorist attacks, it was all too similar to what I heard about the war experience from my family, some of my friends, and their families.  In summary, it was people living their best lives, everything from youth dancing away at a music festival to grandparents and grandchildren celebrating a religious holiday with their friends and neighbors, before the unexpected happened: a terrorist attack focused on killing of as many people as possible and instilling the feeling of terror in the rest of the population.

One speaker shared their final conversation with their grandmother while she hid in a closet, while another speaker shared speaking with their brother before his brother had found out that his wife and children had been killed and their home torched.  Prior to the attack, the grandmother was volunteering to drive sick children to local hospitals that would enter from Gaza for treatment, and it was her hope that she would live to see the day that relations would normalize between all the world’s people in the area. That might have even been possible with the historic agreement that was being talked about between Israel and Saudi Arabia a few days before the terrorist attack.  Instead, hate preachers managed to exploit hundreds of desperate and vulnerable youths, radicalizing them, and transforming them into becoming vessels to carry out terrorist attacks, and it has likely set back progress that the entire region deserves.

One of the most moving moments of the night for me occurred near the end, shortly after the crowd began to sing very old songs. It was the spontaneous reaction that followed right after and engulfed the entire room.  Once the singing began, everyone started putting their arms around the person sitting to either side, starting from the front row back, and they began to sway left and right, with every other row swaying in the same direction.  Sitting in the back row of the frontside section of the podium, the subsequent rows in front of me were full of elderly people, 60 years or older.  The defining feature of the crowds’ backside was that of the yarmulke.  There were different styles and colors of the yarmulke, some of men wearing them had more hair than others, but once the singing began, the yarmulkes took a form of their own.

The backdrop of that synagogue’s hall reflected the ambience of a synagogue that was originally built in the 1970s, and something about the yarmulke swaying left and right took me back to the 1970s.  The details of the men began to slowly transform into indistinguishable silhouettes with each sway, until the only recognizable feature that remained was that of the yarmulke.  In that moment, those yarmulke-wearing silhouettes may have just as easily been the fathers and grandfathers of the attendees, who could have also been survivors of “Never Again”, singing the very same songs in memory of the lives lost in that very same room, but I could not tell you for certain.  What I can say is that the message was the same then as it was now, “Never Again”.

Understanding the roots of radicalization and terrorism so that “Never Again” becomes never again.

When it comes to understanding the roots of radicalization and terrorism, there is a lot to unpack, but the general equation looks something like, “desperation + vulnerability = chaos”.  But exploring desperation and vulnerability and how they create for chaos and how all of it intersects with radicalization and terrorism is something too large for a single article and is something I hope to explore more in depth in the near future.

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