'Salad bar extremism': Edmonton researchers release second report on violent extremist movements

Those most at risk of committing hate-based violence are less likely to be members of a formal “group” than they were three years ago, an Edmonton-based research team has found.

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

Through interviews with around 200 members of the RCMP, city police agencies and community organizations across the province, the researchers found that many of the groups which made headlines in years past are now largely defunct — and that a new, more individualistic mode of radicalization has taken hold.

“The FBI director in the States has used the analogy of ‘salad bar’ extremism,” said OPV executive director John McCoy. “I think that’s quite an apt description. You take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

The OPV, which conducts research and runs a program to help people exit extremist groups, 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 board.

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

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

“All of that’s changed in three years.”

In particular, groups including Combat-18, Blood and Honour, the Three Percenters, Soldiers of Odin and the Proud Boys are all mostly “defunct” according to law enforcement officials interviewed for the study. The Three Percenters and Proud Boys were both added to Canada’s list of terrorist entities in 2021, though law enforcement officers interviewed by the researchers said the groups were largely in decline before the listing occurred.

The collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has also led to a decline in religiously motivated violent extremism.

Instead, those who pose the biggest threat now are more likely to be defined by “idiosyncratic” grievances picked up in — and egged on 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 in Saanich, B.C., who engaged in a shootout with police at a local bank,  and were “down the rabbit hole of anti-government conspiracy but weren’t necessarily part of an identifiable group.”

He said individuals who engage with violent extremist content typically have a history of trauma or early childhood adversity, addictions issues and “acute” social isolation worsened by the pandemic.

“Those individuals did not do well the past few years. The social isolation only worsened, the mental health worsened, 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 this person is a legitimate threat, and this (other) person needs a social care response; this person needs law enforcement intervention and arrest, and this individual needs counselling.”

The full report is available at preventviolence.ca

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