OTTAWA — The Ottawa man who appears in an ISIS video encouraging attacks on Canada likely had an identity crisis rather than a breakdown, a radicalization expert has told parliamentarians.
Jocelyn Bélanger, a psychology professor at L’Université du Québec à Montréal who studies deradicalization, advised the Senate national security committee Monday not to rush to label as mentally ill.
“I assume at one point that man was fed up, perhaps bored of our society and felt he didn’t perhaps fit in with our society,” said Dr. Bélanger. “That would be my hypothesis. And that led to a quest for personal significance.
“I think the evidence is very clear about mental health and terrorism: there’s actually no link,” Dr. Bélanger said, noting that foreign fighters with mental health issues are normally “weeded out of these organizations.”
Dr. Bélanger pointed out that domestic attacks “always occur in waves; it’s incremental” whereas mentally ill attackers tend to act regardless of other attacks. Portraying terrorists as mentally ill is problematic, he said.
“We know that people that have mental illness are stigmatized in our society. And now to, on top of that, say that they may be radicals or future terrorists, imagine the label we’re putting onto those people,” Dr. Bélanger said.
Dr. Bélanger also said Maguire’s reported family abuse may have helped pushed him to extremism, but it’s not a “common trait among those people.”
Maguire, a University of Ottawa dropout whose parents had divorced, disappeared a year ago, his friends said. He converted to Islam and bought a one-way ticket to Syria in January 2013.
‘[Maguire] just got rid of everyone on Facebook and kinda disappeared,” says one former classmate. “He never told us why.”
The 23-year-old appeared in a video Sunday encouraging fellow Canadians to either join him fighting abroad with ISIS, or commit attacks on Canadian institutions.
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Dr. Bélanger said the video could inspire others.
“When we publish or show the video in newspapers, it’s certain the video becomes more accessible, so people who weren’t aware of him now become aware.” There’s an instructional effect that could happen, he told reporters.
On the other hand, people who have disengaged from radical causes could be “beacons of change” for others, Dr. Bélanger told the committee.
“That triggers a doubt in their mind, to see someone who has been deradicalized,” he said. “All of a sudden they see that person very differently, then that creates uncertainty about their beliefs and that perhaps stimulates the possibility of change.”