Montreal Program Works To Prevent Violent Radicalization

Jan 12, 2016

The rise of Islamic State and other terrorist organizations have raised concerns about young people in Europe and the United States who get recruited to join and fight for these groups.

An organization in Montreal was so alarmed by this prospect that it created a program dedicated to anti-radicalization.

The Center for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence started as a hotline almost a year ago, and the physical center opened to some fanfare in November in Montreal.

Initially, the center was a municipal effort, according to Meriem Rebbani-Gosselin, the center’s outreach worker.

“It really came from the mayor and the chief of police who really saw prevention as the main tool to counter radicalization, to counter violent radicalization,” she says.

Before long, though, the center became a non-governmental organization with no official ties to Montreal’s governmental bodies, police or security services – and this had led to increased trust from the community, Rebbani-Gosselin says.

“We're completely separated from the government,” she explains. “And this structure, the way we operate, really makes it work. Because people are not afraid to call us. Parents are not afraid to call us and report, for example, behaviors that they've observed with their children. Teachers are not afraid of calling us, talking about their students, because they don't feel like they're calling the police. They really feel like they're calling an independent organization.”

"We're completely separated from the government. And this structure, the way we operate, really makes it work. Because people are not afraid to call us." - Meriem Rebbani-Gosselin, Center for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence

The center runs a 24-hour hotline, and all calls are confidential. Social workers, psychotherapists and even a psychiatrist are available to go into the field and meet with people if “we need to go further,” Rebbani-Gosselin says, and the center offers free, unlimited follow-up counseling sessions.

“We only intervene when the person is engaged in a radical thinking process and they see violence as a way to reach their means. And what we do is to try to disengage a person from violence,” she says.

Since the hotline was launched in March of 2015, the center has received nearly 570 calls, according to Rebbani-Gosselin, and followed up on about 115.  

“When we get a call about a specific individual, if through our evaluation [we] really believe that there is indeed a risk, then we automatically meet with the with the individual,” Rebbani-Gosselin says. “But … we don't contact the individual directly.”

That’s because the goal is always to avoid confrontation, Rebbani-Gosselin says.

"Confrontation does not work. You really have to take different means to reach out to that individual to make sure that she or he is in position to listen to what you have to say."

“Confrontation does not work. You really have to take different means to reach out to that individual to make sure that she or he is in position to listen to what you have to say,” she says. Sometimes meetings are arranged through parents, or schools, or a coach or friend of the person in question.

The center also doesn’t use the phrase “de-radicalization.”

“Because that's not what we feel that we do,” says Rebbani-Gosselin. “Individuals are entitled to their ides, obviously, and being radical is a positive thing … Throughout history, we had radical thinkers. You know, the feminist movement, Martin Luther King or Gandhi, and these are important. You know, it's important in democratic society that people are entitled to their ideas. So we don't do de-radicalization. What we do is disengagement from violence.”

Sometimes, though, circumstances that appear to be immediately dangerous do warrant contacting the police and other agencies.

“We operate like a suicide hotline,” Rebbani-Gosselin says. “When you call a suicide hotline, if the person on the other end feels like you are going to commit suicide in a very imminent, very short period of time, then they will call 911. And in that sense we operate the same way. If we feel like there's an imminent threat, then we definitely will transfer.”

"Being radical is a positive thing ... It's important in democratic society that people are entitled to their ideas. So we don't do de-radicalization. What we do is disengagement from violence."

But transfers are rare, according to Rebbani-Gosselin. The center has referred just eight cases since it’s been in operation.

And while the center can get information from police and other security agencies, Rebbani-Gosselin says those groups can’t get information from the center – “unless there is an imminent threat.”

And that, Rebbani-Gosselin says, is what allows the Center for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence to maintain open lines of communication with the community.

“This is why we are trusted in the community and ... why we get that amount of calls. Because the community really trusts, when they call us.”