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‘Extremism at the salad bar’: Edmonton researchers release report

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According to an Edmonton-based research team, those most at risk of committing hate-motivated violence are less likely to belong to a formal “group” than they were three years ago.

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On Wednesday, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence published its second gear on extremist movements — a follow-up to a 2019 report on hate and extremist groups in Canada, with a focus on Alberta.

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Through interviews with approximately 200 members of the RCMP, municipal police departments and community organizations across the province, researchers found that many of the groups that have made headlines in years past are now largely disappeared – and that a new, more individualistic mode of radicalization has taken over.

“The Director of the FBI in the United States used the analogy of ‘salad bar’ extremism,” said OPV Executive Director John McCoy. “I think that’s a very apt description. You take a little of this, a little of that.

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The OPV, which conducts research and runs a program to help people get out of extremist groups, was launched in 2016 and focuses on violent extremism in the Edmonton area. The agency is funded by the federal government and REACH Edmonton, a community safety group, and operates independently of law enforcement, though it includes several current and former police officers on its plank.

The authors of the latest report — Michele St-Amant, David Jones and Michael King and McCoy — set out to update the 2019 study, which cataloged the number and types of extremist movements active in Alberta. They included movements of free men on land and sovereign citizens, from militias, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups to al-Qaeda spin-offs like ISIS.

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“When we were doing research for the 2019 report, much of the focus was on a group phenomenon,” McCoy said. “There was still a lot of talk about militia groups like the Three Percenters, we had a long heritage of neo-Nazi groups in the province…there was always a concentration in law enforcement and the national security sector on Daesh or ISIS and the legacy of recruiting foreign fighters, with a decent contingent coming from Alberta.

“All that has changed in three years.”

In particular, groups including Combat-18, Blood and Honor, the Three Percents, Soldiers of Odin and Proud Boys are all mostly “defunct” according to law enforcement officials interviewed for the study. The Three Percenters and Proud Boys have both been added to the list of terrorist entities in 2021, although law enforcement officers interviewed by the researchers said the groups were largely in decline prior to listing.

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The collapse of the Islamic State “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has also led to a decline in religiously motivated violent extremism.

Instead, those who pose the greatest threat today are more likely to be defined by “idiosyncratic” grievances garnered and fostered by fringe online communities, McCoy said. He pointed to the Nova Scotia mass shooter, who had “long-standing anti-authority grievances”, as well as the brothers from Saanich, British Columbia, who engaged in a shootout with police at a local bank, and were “down the rabbit hole of an anti-government plot but were not necessarily part of an identifiable group”.

He said people who engage in violent extremist content typically have a history of early childhood trauma or adversity, addiction issues and “acute” social isolation compounded by the pandemic.

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“These people haven’t done well in recent years. The social isolation only got worse, the mental health deteriorated and the trauma was always there.

He said part of the shift to “salad bar” extremism has been driven by the relative ease with which formal groups have been infiltrated by law enforcement.

Now, “it’s not easy to monitor them through their affiliations,” McCoy said. “It becomes very difficult to say that this person is a legitimate threat and that this (other) person needs a social response; this person needs police intervention and an arrest, and this person needs advice.

The full report is available at preventviolence.ca

[email protected]

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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