Out of Reach? The Role of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism in Canada

Project Title

Canada’s experience in and response to lone actor terrorism

Lead / Author

Royal United Services Institute

Relevant Dates

Report published February 2015. Fieldwork in 2013 and early 2014.


This study examines the phenomenon of lone-actor terrorism, and the role of community outreach and engagement by police as a means of addressing such threats. While terrorist incidents involving lone actors remain rare in Europe and North America, the study notes an apparent increase in the number of cases, which encompass a range of violent ideologies. As well, the authors note an increase in efforts by Western countries to implement policies and programs to address the drivers and pathways of radicalization leading to violence, especially in context of the ongoing conflict in Syria. In this light, the report highlights the centrality of community engagement programs for building trust between the population and law enforcement towards preventing terrorism, and seeks to identify relevant good practices.

The research is based on over 50 interviews with law enforcement practitioners, government officials, community representatives, religious leaders and researchers, conducted in Canada in 2013 and early 2014. As well, the study draws on a review of academic, government policy and police operational literature relevant to lone-actor terrorism cases and to government approaches to the threat. The analysis focuses on outreach and engagement efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, drawing on visits to six Canadian cities where RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams are based: Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. 

Select Findings

The study emphasizes that there is no consistent definition of ‘lone actor’, that it is a complex threat in need of further study, but that there are some consistent features that emerge from the available empirical data. Similarly to cases of violent extremism more generally, there is no single profile, with significant differences in traits such as age, gender, education, and personal background. At the same time, the report notes how recent academic literature is coming to focus on patterns to do with relationships between ideology and behaviour, along with roles played by the internet, and mental health related aspects.

The distinguishing feature for the authors is that a ‘lone’ individual or couple acts outside of a recognized command structure or network, even though in support of a violent ideological group or movement. A point of emphasis for the study, however, is that often lone actors are not really alone. Instead, there is commonly some level of visible interaction with others, either online or offline. This interaction, then, is considered an opportunity for early intervention, including through community-based policing. The connection is then drawn to the RCMP’s National Security Community Outreach program, given its core principle that the active engagement of citizens, and collaboration between communities and law-enforcement agencies, are essential elements of countering violent radicalization.

Results from the interviews indicate that during the time covered by the research, the issue of lone actor terrorism in Canada was less of a focus for the RCMP than for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, though RCMP officers interviewed noted a number of cases resembling lone-actor terrorism, including close calls and cases of significant concern. Regarding the RCMP’s community engagement efforts, findings include that while such efforts were effectively building positive links with community members, these were considered in early stages of development and often locally-driven through the work of individual RCMP members, rather than being more ‘institutionalized’ across the organization.

The report also finds that there were limited structures and mechanisms in place for community engagement officers across the country to share information, lessons learned and best practices. The researchers also found that community members saw the need for police to engage with a wider range of voices, and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of communities and their concerns. On lone actor terrorism in particular, the researchers conclude that the RCMP’s engagement efforts are not sufficiently getting the message out to communities about the nature of the threat and its varied forms, which the report highlights as a concern given the difficulties of detecting and investigating lone actor terrorism on side of other forms.

Further Information

Out of Reach? The Role of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism in Canada

Related Initiatives

David Schanzer et al., “The Challenge and Promise of Using Community Policing Strategies to Prevent Violent Extremism: A Call for Community Partnerships with Law Enforcement to Enhance Public Safety,” Duke University, 2016.

Myrna Lashley et al., “Cultural Competence and Canada’s Security: Can being culturally competent assist police and security officers in ensuring Canada’s security?,” Environics, 2014.

Canadian Council of Muslim Women, “Community Resilience: Environment Scan,” Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam, 2015.



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