From Al-Qaida to Soldiers of Odin, extremism finds fertile ground in Alberta: report

A man wearing a Soldiers of Odin vest watches a peaceful march in downtown Calgary on Dec. 15, 2018.

Alberta is home to a disproportionate number of extremist movements — including far-right groups and people travelling abroad to join armed groups such as ISIS — according to a new report billed as the first of its kind.

The upcoming study, Extremism and Hate Motivated Violence in Alberta, runs nearly 100 pages and provides a taxonomy of the province’s extremist groups. It includes provincial membership estimates for violent or potentially violent ideological movements, and assessments of whether the groups are growing or shrinking.

The Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV), which produced the report, received a $1.2 million grant from the federal government last year as part of a plan to counter hate and violent extremism in Alberta, which has seen a rise in police-reported hate crimes. The report is poised to be made public next month.

The organization also developed an intervention program to steer people away from extremist movements.

OPV executive director John McCoy said he’s unaware of any other studies that identify and quantify extremist groups in Alberta.

“What our research (shows) is that there is a diversity of threats out there related to violent extremism, and there are many different ideologies that can create this problem,” said McCoy, a professor who teaches terrorism studies at the University of Alberta.

“There are a number of ideologies where Alberta is disproportionately represented, in terms of the numbers that we’re producing,” he said.

The report relied on interviews with more than 170 law enforcement members from the RCMP and every municipal police service in Alberta. Researchers also interviewed around 120 people whose communities are impacted by hate and extremism, 50 service providers specializing in violence and at-risk youth, and 21 “formers” — people previously involved with extremist movements or their loved ones.

McCoy said one major conclusion is that individuals on the edges of extremist groups — often radicalized on social media — are the biggest threat.

“The individuals that we’re seeing are really on the margins of extremist movements,” he said.

Al-Qaida, affiliates and splinter groups (AQAS)

The report found Alberta has been home to “both intimate and established networks” tied to al-Qaida and affiliated groups, and “highly isolated cases that are connected with AQAS networks wholly online.”

“Today, the trend is very much towards the latter,” the report says

From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, low-level fundraising, money laundering and promotion/propaganda work took place in the province, the report said, supporting foreign fighters in the Middle East, North Africa and Bosnia.

The report cited the case of Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, who pleaded guilty to U.S. charges of providing financial support to Tunisian fighters in Iraq who carried out a deadly 2009 suicide attack.

Since 2012, it is estimated that between 30 and 40 people from Alberta travelled overseas to fight for armed groups — a number McCoy said is disproportionate to Alberta’s population. McCoy said the majority of those joined ISIS.

Those fighters include former Edmonton residents Mahad Hirsi, Hamsa Kariye, Heri Kariye and Omar Aden, who are believed to have travelled to Syria in 2013. The four were believed to be part of a network that included up to 14 people spread between Minnesota, Alberta and California. All four fighters were reportedly dead by the end of 2014.

Roughly 20 people are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq from Calgary — including 10 or so who shared a loose connection with a now-closed mosque in downtown Calgary.

Now, the primary local concern is people inspired by the movements committing a “homegrown” attack. The report cited a Sept. 30, 2017, vehicle attack on a police officer and pedestrians in Edmonton — still before the courts — saying it mirrored the “playbook” of groups like ISIS. No terrorism charges were laid in that case.

While returning foreign fighters present a threat, those fears have yet to be realized, the report says. Most of those who travelled to fight abroad are dead. About 10 per cent of those who left have returned, the report said, but “no public details were available on their activities.”

The report said the movement’s trajectory in Alberta is “static.”

Anti-authority extremists

Anti-authority extremists cited in the report include Freemen on the Land, who broadly assert that government is illegitimate. The report estimates there are about 150 to 250 Freemen on the Land in Alberta — lower than previous estimates.

The report found that most Freemen come to the ideology after a “negative interaction” with the legal system. The majority of them are non-violent. However, the report found 10 to 15 Alberta Freemen have “demonstrated a behavioural propensity for violence.”

Norman Raddatz — the man who killed Edmonton city police Const. Daniel Woodall and shot another officer in 2015 — expressed Freeman-style sentiments and was investigated for harassing a Jewish family. James Roszko, the man who murdered four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe in 2005, was also known to have violent anti-government views. Both perpetrators are dead.

The report suggests the Freemen on the Land movement is in decline. However, it says general anti-government extremism is on the rise — evidenced in part by an upswing in death threats against politicians following the 2015 elections of Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau.

Left-wing extremism

The report’s category on left-wing extremism includes anarchists and Antifa groups. To date, the report found left-wing extremists have not been involved in any major violent incidents in Alberta, nor do researchers believe they present a “significant threat to public safety.”

The researchers found “reciprocal radicalization” was at play in the relationship between right-wing and left-wing extremist groups. Violence by left-wing extremists is “mainly reactionary in confrontation with right-wing groups.”

The OPV estimates there were 20 to 30 people involved in Antifa and anti-racist groups in Calgary, with only a small number who support violence during confrontations with the far right.

The movements are believed to be growing, the report said.