Jeremy Kowalski, author of “Domestic Extremism and the Case of the Toronto 18,” explains how his investigation of the “Toronto 18” uncovered a link between state violence and the development of domestic extremist groups
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. 9/11 dramatically changed our world, perhaps forever. The seismic shockwaves of 9/11 are still felt nearly 16 years later. It has unearth forms of Islamophobia that sociologists are still trying to explain. It has has dramatically changed geopolitics, foreign policy, domestic policies, counter-terrorism and policing in ways that has encroached on our individual rights, freedoms, and privacy in ways that we could not have imagined 25 years ago. Further, terms such as radicalization, terrorism, Islam, Islamist, and extremism are all a part of our conscious and unconscious vocabulary. Further, we experience terms such as home-grown terror, planned and executed within our country, like that of the 2005 train bombings in London, Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in 2015, or the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and scores of other such events continue to plague our living realities. Today, we’re joined here by somebody who’s written a book on this, who attempts to interpret, explain, and ultimately demystify domestic terrorism, and is consistent recasting by the state and corporate media. The book is titled, Domestic Extremism, and The Case of the Toronto 18. It’s author Jeremy Kowalaski who joins me here in our Baltimore studio, thank you so much for joining us. JEREMY KOWALSKI: It’s a pleasure to be here with you Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: So Jeremy, your book is set in Toronto at a time, as I described, after 9/11, where the world had changed quite dramatically, and the Toronto 18 is arrested. So, describe and set the stage for us as to what was going on in Toronto and what was going on in Canada and the world over at the time. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Certainly. So after 9/11, much like many other Western jurisdictions throughout Western Europe, the United States, and in Canada, after the events of 9/11, you had this concerted effort through various countries to actually attempt to confront what was this new, nascent, and nefarious threat, which was Islamic, Islamist referred to it as terrorism. So, you have an enactment of a variety of different laws. In the United States, you had the introduction of the Patriot Act, and in Canada, you had it’s complement, which was the Anti-Terrorism Act, which was passed in December 2011, which was a variety of legislation that was meant to enhance the powers of the security apparatuses in law enforcement in order to attempt to interdict and neutralize the threat that came from this purported enemy of Western democracies. So, subsequent to the events of 9/11, you have the London terror attacks that you made reference to, Madrid, Bali, right? And within this, you have this constant building up with this atmosphere of fear, right, that there was this enemy from within. And so what happens is, you have this tremendous amount of scrutiny that is placed upon Muslim communities, because their perceived as, to serve as repositories of threat and danger. Within this, you also have Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. And pursuant to that, you also have Canada’s involvement in Iraq. Now within the Canadian context, there’s this kind of mythology that’s been built up that Canada was not involved in Iraq, but the contrary is actually true. Although we did not officially send troops, we provided a variety of other forms of support, and depending upon who [inaudible 00:04:08] and the authorities that you draw upon, Canada was either the third largest or the fifth largest contributor to the war in Iraq, contrary to what many Canadians, again, believe. So through Canadians’ involvement in Afghanistan, and the state violence enacted there within, you have various individuals within Toronto, right, that obviously took umbrage with what was going on within Afghanistan. And hence, then you have the emergence of this Toronto 18, which you have the arrest in June of 2006 of 17 individuals that were purportedly engaged in terrorism offenses contrary to the criminal code of Canada. So 17 individuals are arrested. Following, probably about four weeks later, you have an 18th individual arrested associated with this group, and hence the popular codification of the Toronto 18. And following that, then, as we approach the court cases, you had charges stayed or withdrawn against seven individuals, and ultimately, then the Toronto 18 becomes the Toronto 11. And following the court cases at the end, you had 10 adults that were charged with various offenses, and one youth who was remaining. SHARMINI PERIES: So, your book starts with the arrest of these 18 individuals. And while the world is watching, and the world was watching, there was media from all over the world at the courthouse, and while all of us were totally focused on who these 18 are, and where they come from, and what the details are in terms of how they got involved in what essentially was a sleeper cell in the works in Toronto, and there was a training camp involved, and so on … Your gaze was on the state actors, who invested, implemented, and brought these 18 people to the court. Tell us about the methodology, and why you went about looking at the state actors, and not like the rest of us following the herd. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Absolutely. So perhaps, I can preface my comments by saying, much of the events of 9/11 and the subsequent events, violent incidents that occurred in, again, a variety of different jurisdictions, the question that always lingered in my mind is, how is it possible for groups like this to emerge and play specific contexts, right? And that served, really, as the impetus behind the book, and seeking to answer that question. And indeed, much like most people, and as you were alluding to, the mass media from around the world that was at the original arraignment of these individuals at the Brampton Courthouse, which is located just outside of the city of Toronto. You had this sensational buildup, right, the spectacle. Snipers on rooftops, heavily armed police officers all over the place, a helicopter orbiting above … That really, in my opinion, set the stage that this was a very, very serious group of individuals that represented this deep threat to the Canadian state, and to the Canadian nation. So, following kind of that spectacle, it happened to coincide, at the time, when I was doing my doctoral research. And I wanted to engage this issue of domestic extremism. And so, the time that I started to engage in my field research, the court cases of the Toronto 18 started to play out, and as I attended the different court cases and started to synthesize and go through the information that was made available … And I should say, the Toronto 18 is quite unique in that because of the length of time that this group was under surveillance, you have a very rich documentary and empirical record of the actions of the state, as well as of the members of this particular group. And as I started to go through my analysis and started to go through the information, and watching various actors that were testifying, what started to emerge and became very clear was not so much a story of the Toronto 18, which is certainly evident and is certainly there, but more of the story of state violence, and how organically linked and inextricable these types of groups are to state policy and state violence. Whether that be through foreign policy, whether that be through internal forms of surveillance, and in joining that, it’s various kind of racist profiling and undertones. And as I, again, as my research continued, this picture became very clear, of again, the role of state violence in the development and production these groups. SHARMINI PERIES: And explain that a bit more in terms of state violence. What do you mean by it, how is it enacted, how does it transpire? JEREMY KOWALSKI: Well, I mean, I think state violence appears in a multitude of different forms. So we can talk about state violence in it’s physical form, foreign policy, military adventurism, right, which operates now under the auspices of counter-terrorism, okay? So, we can think about involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, etc. right, Libya, and our involvement there. So you have the physical violence associated with that, right, which is the externalization of counter-terrorism policies and practices. And obviously, the multitude of civilian deaths that are associated with it, the attempt to eradicated supposed militants without any evidence … So these types of physical violence. State violence also appears in an institutional form, so how various laws are enacted, which actually specifically target particular communities, because they become suspect, as well different mechanisms that are developed. So for instance, the multi-cultural round table that was established in Canada to address potential issues that may arise within minority communities as a way to allow them to express their grievances, was one mechanism. But at the same time, to use the multi-cultural round table initially when it was developed, there was no Muslim representation. So in effect, you have others superimposing their own interpretation of these communities without the voices of these community speaking themselves. And in addition to that, another form of institutional violence would be the citizenship’s academies that were developed within Canada through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, otherwise known as the RCMP. And where they specifically targeted minority communities to reinforce to these communities that national security was a collective effort. However … SHARMINI PERIES: And includes them. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Yes, that includes them, and that they are part of, in effect, the responsibility of citizens is to help protect the safety of Canada. Most notably, these schools that were being targeted were of minorities, not of White Christian majority. And somehow, then the supposition being as minorities, that you do not necessarily a priori have the values of, say, Canada or the United States, etc. at heart. And therefore, then one needs to be indoctrinated or reprogrammed or such, or reminded of what those values particularly are. And then, of course, you come to the ideological violence of the state. So we can see, especially in a post-9/11 context, the securitization of multiculturalism that has occurred, and that multiculturalism, rather than being treated as a source of strength, although rhetorically may be presented as such, in the securitized imagination, of the law enforcement imagination, multiculturalism becomes a source of vulnerability, and a source of danger, because somehow, you have these others that may harbor particular values or sentimentalities that are contrary to the interests of liberal democracies, such as freedom, such as modernity, human rights, etc. So, state violence occurs on a multitude of different registers, not just in it’s physical form, but in it’s institutional and ideological forms as well. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And then we get to the question that most people want to know, which is, who were the Toronto 18, and where did they come from, and what is … Map the sociological demographics for us in terms of these individuals and where they came from. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Absolutely. And contrary to the way that people like to imagine these figures, is somehow, these figures are lost in some kind of hypnotic state of theological hypnosis, that they are overtly religious, that these individuals somehow are exceptional, right? Do they suffer from some form of psychopathology, is there a socioeconomic dimension to these groups that drive them, say, to particular forms of violence? I mean, in many respects, these individuals were rather unexceptional individuals. They were, generally speaking, well-educated, came from middle class to I would say middle upper-class backgrounds, weren’t necessarily socially vulnerable in any particular way, didn’t suffer from, for instance, drug abuse, etc. And they came from the greater Toronto area, to give you a greater is that, in effect, there were two groups. One from the city of Mississauga, the other from the city of Scarborough, which are two cities that comprise the greater Toronto area for your viewership that may not be familiar with Toronto. This group came together when they joined, as you made reference to in your introduction, to a winter training camp which took place in December of 2005. Most of these individuals had either attended post-secondary institutions together, or had met in other social settings, but not necessarily every one of them was deeply interconnected. For instance, many people at the winter training camp as it came to be referred to, did not really know one another. This was the first time that they had ever met. SHARMINI PERIES: And Jeremy, were there individuals in the Toronto 18 involved, or a part of families, that believed in Islamic Fundamentalism, if I may use that term? JEREMY KOWALSKI: Well, very little information came out about the families. For all intents and purposes, the families that these people came from were working class families that were not overtly “religious” by any sense. But again, there was not a lot of information that came out about the families themselves. Many of the families were certainly supportive of these individuals, but not necessarily their support systems, or their belief systems … SHARMINI PERIES: The reason I ask you this is, because of Omar Khadr, who was a Canadian child, who had gone back to Afghanistan with his father, got involved in some activities. He was convicted of killing an American soldier and ended up in Guantanamo Bay, where he was tortured. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Right. SHARMINI PERIES: And the Canadian state was very inactive at trying to look into the case, and having him transferred back to Canada to deal with this, even if he was involved in such activity. So that’s why I ask. JEREMY KOWALSKI: Certainly. And yeah, to answer your question, given the Khadr case, these families, in no way, shape, or form would have fallen into that type of context. They’re Canadian citizens, right, and in no way were they connected somehow to that. But the case of Omar Khadr, I think what’s important to point out, is that he allegedly killed an American soldier, no conclusive evidence have been produced that he actually did so. And although there is, within Canada and the United States, the story of Omar Khadr, and represented as this dangerous terrorist that had come through a terrorist family, etc. … The real story of Omar Khadr was not that Omar Khadr was in Afghanistan, and was with his father at the time, and was whether or not he was supporting groups like Al-Qaeda. The real story is the fact that the Canadian government was complicit in the torture of a child. That is the real story. So in the mainstream media within Canada, the news that you received about Omar Khadr, and I’ll bring this back into the Toronto 18, is that when and he was actually going to be returned to Canada, and under what conditions, what was the length of sentence going to be here? Where in actuality, the real story is that the Canadian government was complicit in the torture of a child. That is the real story, and the fact that we was left in a form of exile in Guantanamo Bay, which was known, obviously, as a space of torture. And that, to me, is actually the real story, which is not covered. And to date, there is very little evidence that Omar Khadr actually was engaged in what we can call real terrorist related offenses, because of the military tribunals that were set up to try him, which have been largely discredited as ridiculous by any judicial standards. So anyways, to tie this back in … So the Omar Khadr case is somewhat different from the case of the Toronto 18, and the familial backgrounds of these individuals, I would say there is nothing exceptional about them. People may look to them, okay, are the Muslim families? Some. One family background was actually Hindu, for instance, and their son was a convert. But there’s nothing exceptional about them, although some people may say, what makes them exceptional is the fact that they were Muslim. Aha. So where there’s smoke, there is fire, which is entirely a fallacious assumption to assume that, somehow, there’s a cause and effect between these things. So, I would say this, is that they were, in summary, they were a rather unexceptional group of individuals that were engaging in, initially, rather benign activities, but when refracted … SHARMINI PERIES: When you say benign, I mean, these 18 had guns, they were in a training camp, they were … JEREMY KOWALSKI: Right, and so you have to remember, when we frame these things … So a training camp, it depends how you frame these things through a securitized gaze. So, what could be construed as a group of young men going into a forest to play paintball, okay, and engage in winter camping, when refracted through a securitized gaze, and a very particular, Orientalist securitized gaze, suddenly now, they become Islamic terrorists. And so now, benign activities become much more malevolent activities, and their intent is much different than, perhaps, what it initially was. With respect to the winter training camp, the introduction of weaponry to the camp was actually brought by what had become, then, an undercover agent for the Canadian security and intelligence service, or in the RCMP. So he actually brought … SHARMINI PERIES: So they planted informants in the training … JEREMY KOWALSKI: An informant was planted to attend the winter training camp, and he, himself, was an individual that actually brought a handgun and a rifle to the winter training camp to engage in target practice. The other individuals that attended would not have had the ability to actually bring weaponry, because none of them had a license to carry a gun, or to purchase a weapon. So, in effect, the state is the one, in this instance, that introduced what would be considered a more nefarious element to the training camp itself. Beyond that, you had individuals running in para-military formation, that engaged in various activities from occupying a ridge, carrying a Flag of the Faithful, which is black and white flag which we’ve seen now with ISIS and other groups, and as explained within the trial is that the significance of this flag is that it is “Jihadi” in nature. And even moving beyond that, so the next activity of the group, was to identify a safe house in what was called Opasatika, Ontario, which is a town about ten hours north of Toronto. And they were going to identify a safe house where not only could they continue their training, but would serve as a safe house after an attack was perpetrated. So you had a group of individuals with the undercover agent, that went up to Opasatika, and tried to identify a particular safe house. And then, following that, you have a splitting of the group in March of 2006, into what was now called the Mississauga group and the Scarborough group, and you had the splitting because the leader of the Mississauga group saw the leader of the Scarborough group as largely a figure of inaction, and was unserious about actually engaging in anything except for highfalutin rhetoric. Following that then, you have groups break off into two different trajectories. One, they attend a second training camp, which was located in Guelph, Ontario, where they engaged in camping activities and canoeing, and in the end of the evening, actually just had a meeting in a tent where they had two swords crossed on front of a Quran, which was meant to serve as kind of a propaganda video for the activities of the group. After that, the activities of the Scarborough group neutralized, there’s nothing afterwards. And then, you have what’s called the Bomb Plot that pursues with the Mississauga group. SHARMINI PERIES: And let’s take that up, this is a good place and a good segway into our part two, The Bomb Plot. We’ll pick that up in segment two off my interview about this book, Domestic Terrorism and the Case of the Toronto 18, with it’s author. Thank you so much for joining us.