Officer biases hamper counterterrorism: Canadian study

Last modified January 16, 2021. Published January 4, 2021.
Indonesian police officers of the Special Detachment 88 anti-terror unit take position outside a building during a raid on a suspected militant hideout in Sukoharjo, Central Java. (AP Images/Anonymous)

Indonesian police officers of the Special Detachment 88 anti-terror unit take position outside a building during a raid on a suspected militant hideout in Sukoharjo, Central Java. (AP Images/Anonymous)

Counterterrorism officials in Canada still routinely ignore factors related to gender and race when analyzing suspects, a researcher found, leaving “persistent blind spots” in their search for violent extremists, especially those who target women and minorities.

In a new paper published in the International Journal in early December, Rachel Schmidt, a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, found that Canadian counterterrorism officers have been slow to adopt a framework designed to help minimize their personal biases while working on government policy.

This pattern is in part explained by officers’ misconception that terms like “gender” are academic matters and thus have little to do with their work, according to Schmidt, even though they are highly relevant to understanding and combating extremist organizations.

“Armed groups use gender very, very well,” Schmidt told The Academic Times. “They are so sophisticated in how they use gendered imagery,” such as Islamic State recruitment videos that invoke images of the “lion jihadi male fighter” or that depict brides of the group as being the “mother of the caliphate.”

“And if we don’t understand this intersection, and if we don’t understand the traction this gets … then you’re missing a really huge piece of the puzzle of how these groups are sustained, how they keep going,” she said. 

Schmidt, a Canadian-born scholar whose research centers on political violence and gender, had suspected initially that she’d find the types of gender and racial biases within Canadian counterterrorism organizations that she’d previously encountered in agencies in other countries such as the U.K.

To test her hypothesis, Schmidt conducted interviews with dozens of counterterrorism and law enforcement officers with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and other agencies, as well as analysts, academics and people involved in deradicalization work. Her sources’ names were concealed to protect their identities.

Schmidt’s questions probed her sources’ view of a federal mandate to increase the use of an intersectional policy framework called Gender-based Analysis Plus, or GBA+, in the Canadian law enforcement and intelligence communities.

Despite its title, GBA+ incorporates a wide range of socioeconomic factors, from race and gender to education and income, to analyze new government policy and its potential impacts on certain groups. Though adopted by Canada in 1995, it was mostly deployed in economic and trade policy until recently.

While a number of government sources expressed enthusiasm about incorporating GBA+ into counterterrorism efforts, several “frontline practitioners” said they were uncertain as to how these concepts relate to their work.

In many cases, Schmidt said, she had to wrestle with officers who were insistent that their work “had nothing to do with gender” due to the misunderstanding that a “gender” analysis is only about women or women’s behavior, or that it is generally relegated to an area of its own within counterterrorism.

One former government employee told Schmidt that she deliberately dodged taking on gender-related intelligence work out of fear that she’d be put into a “box.” Schmidt also observed this firsthand when sources would frequently refer her to the same security consultant who is known for her research on gender and terrorism.

Another remaining concern is that matters related to diversity in these circles are merely addressed through one-day workshops, which run the risk of “checking the box” without properly remedying the underlying biases.

“Gender is about power; it’s not about women,” Schmidt explained. “If you look at the ways that relationships can be gendered, even among men, like what men call each other, there’s a gendered hierarchy of power, even in groups that are all-male.”

And even armed groups that claim to be all-male without exception have some level of female participation behind the scenes, whether willingly or not, to support the group’s longevity, she added.

“Historically, [women’s] participation has been greatly overlooked because we tend to focus on the pointy end of the stick,” Schmidt said. “But how far can a military get without its logistics train? And when you’re looking at non-state armed groups and terrorism, those logistics trains are often women.”

Scholars’ understanding of the role of gender in violent conflicts had not begun to evolve until roughly 15 years ago,  Schmidt explained, primarily led by female scholars who posited that despite media depictions, women participate in wars and terrorism to a greater extent than expected.

Schmidt also found that biases based on skin color, nationality and religion remain rampant, as Black Muslim men, for example, are often “overemphasized” by counterterrorism officials. Domestically, she said, blind spots resulting from these biases can lead to officials overlooking the rise of far-right militant groups and the risk of violence against women from online subcultures such as “involuntary celibate” men, or “incels.” 

Additionally, respondents indicated a disparate and unclear understanding of deradicalization programs, whether they aid or hinder counterterrorism efforts, and who should be carrying out such initiatives.

Empirically, Schmidt said, her findings are surprising, given Canada’s reputation for progressive social policies under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau compared to other countries such as the U.K., where she had previously conducted a similar study focused only on gender bias.

Frameworks like the GBA+ “are all elements that the U.K. doesn’t really have,” she said. “So with those kinds of established instruments in the Canadian government, you’d expect to find at least a bit less bias or some better strategy to mitigate bias than in the U.K. case.”

For things to change, Schmidt argued, the Canadian government would need to improve the representation of marginalized demographics in law enforcement and “reinvent” the way it trains counterterrorism officials to be aware of their implicit biases and find new ways to make its GBA+ framework fit those working in the field.

“One of the things that a lot of respondents who came from [more ethnically diverse] communities have said to me is that, ‘Look, it’s not about trying to erase people’s biases, it’s about bringing more biases to the table, because you need to get more people in there from different backgrounds … because the Canadian government is predominantly people from Ontario and Quebec,’” she said.

Schmidt is currently working on a book that expands on her previous research into the role of gender in the identities of Colombian revolutionary fighters.

The article, “Investigating implicit biases around race and gender in Canadian counterterrorism,” was published Dec. 3 in International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis and authored by Rachel Schmidt, a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

This story has been updated to clarify the status of Schmidt’s book.

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