Though the details surrounding the most recent arrest in Ottawa remain unknown, community leaders and experts say they’re worried the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has led to an uptick in antisemitic and Islamophobic hate, and risks increased radicalization of youth.
The RCMP in Ottawa announced Saturday they had arrested a youth and charged them with two offences, one relating to knowingly “instructing, directly or indirectly, a person to carry out a terrorist activity against Jewish persons.” Police have not released additional information due to the person’s age.
But the RCMP did take the opportunity Saturday to note what they described as a concerning trend in online radicalization, including the arrest of five youths for terror-related offences since the summer.
“I think this is deeply concerning on multiple levels,” said Sikander Hashmi, an imam based in Ottawa.
“One thing I think that all Canadians can agree upon is that we deeply enjoy the safety and security in this country that this country has to offer. And when that safety and security is threatened, regardless of who it’s by or who it’s against, that is of concern to all Canadians, including members of our community,” he told CBC News in an interview on Sunday.
Hashmi emphasized that the details of the specific Ottawa case were still unclear, but that based on the past, events like the Israel-Hamas war could have a radicalizing effect.
“Clearly these types of horrific tragedies and horrific instances of war and pain and grief can certainly be used to try to radicalize young people,” he said.
“When you think about young people who are even more so exposed to the horrific images because it’s flooding their social media streams … we’re not in a good place right now.”
Jewish community leaders told CBC on Sunday they were dismayed to hear of the alleged terror threat and that it was certainly linked to a rise in antisemitism since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war.
“I’ve been saying it over and over again. If things aren’t going to get better, they’re going to get worse. And here they got worse,” said Rabbi Idan Scher of the Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa.
Scher praised the co-operation of Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and police in the city in helping to maintain confidence in the safety of the Jewish community, but said it was clear there was a spike in antisemitic sentiment and actions.
“I definitely think since October 7th, people have felt emboldened to express hate against the Jewish community,” he said.
Rising concern about online hate
Sarah Beutel, interim CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, told Radio-Canada that the alleged threat “does show a clear line of what we’ve been saying: that antisemitism and acts of antisemitism and hateful speech lead to acts of violence.”
Beutel said the Jewish community is very concerned about the arrest but will not allow it or other instances of antisemitism to interfere with their lives.
“We cannot let the fear make us hide in our homes. We need to come out, we need to take action and we also need to live our lives,” she said.
But Beutel said it is clear that online conversation is a significant factor in the development of more extreme views.
“We’re really concerned about online hate. We know that online hate has been allowed to like fester, and we see now how youth are being radicalized,” she said, calling on the federal government to take real action on the file. The federal government is still working on online harms legislation, first promised in 2019.
Social media a factor in radicalization, expert says
Lorne Dawson, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo specializing in terrorism and radicalization, said the effects of social media on radicalization are not yet fully understood, but said it is clear that radicalization among youth is becoming “far more pronounced all over the world.”
“With social media and all the interaction on social media, it’s driving it to a younger and younger segment of the audience, even though it always has been those young people that initially are interested,” he said.
Dawson said there are often common characteristics or patterns of radicalization, including a traumatic or emotional event — like the Israel-Hamas war. A community of like-minded individuals is also a key component, he noted.
“There’s really mounting evidence (that) the key in radicalization is being mobilized into a network,” Dawson said.
“In those networks will be individuals who long ago decided it’s their task to get people to do something, to motivate them to take an action.”
Dawson said it is key for youth to feel there is some alternative, non-extreme way to make an impact on the world or the crisis. Parents have to be prepared to have serious and open conversations — something that could be very difficult, he said — in order to help their children.
Dawson noted it is not just the Israel-Hamas war having a radicalizing effect, citing the recent arrest of two men charged with terrorism-related offences linked to far-right Neo-Nazi movements.
Hashmi, the imam in Ottawa, said the Muslim community can understand the pain of the Jewish community when it is targeted by hate.
“Whenever there is a case of antisemitism or any targeting of the Jewish community, we know precisely how that feels, right? We’ve actually lost 11 Muslims in Canada over the past few years in clear, explicit cases of hate,” he said.
Hashmi said it is clear that international events have a knock-on effect on those in Canada, often because of family ties, while deeper community ties can be used to fight back against the isolation that often spurs radicalization.
“It’s certainly the absence of that community presence, of those connections, which actually drives this type of problem.”