New Canadian Media
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 09:30

When the Fear of Terrorism Trumps Reason

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

There is no question that fear sells. The latest Stephen King film about an evil clown – It –  grossed over $120 million in its first three days after all.

We are odd in that we both fear fear and we are entertained by it – go figure.

But fear is not always helpful, unless you are running away from a grizzly or swimming away from a shark.  It is particularly counter-productive when it leads you to stop doing things you normally do. Things like going to a restaurant or to a movie (perhaps to see It) or on a vacation.  And the one thing that seems to be causing many people to alter their normal lives is the fear of terrorism.

In some ways this is, of course, understandable since there is not a day that goes by where we do not see or read about some act of violent extremism somewhere in the world.  These acts seem to resonate even more when they take place in ‘our world’ – i.e. Western Europe, North America or Australia – than when they occur in Africa, the Middle East or Asia (fact: the vast majority of attacks and casualties occur in the latter three rather than the former). 

The images of bloody corpses and mangled limbs sends shivers to those who witness them, in person or via social media.  We become afraid of terrorists and terrorism and we begin to believe that we will become the next victims unless we stay away from where the terrorists are.

This is problematic as terrorism can occur ANYWHERE.  A very short list of recent attacks underscores the ubiquity of terrorism: an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, a pedestrian mall in Barcelona, a London Tube train on a busy morning commute, in front of Notre Dame in Paris, a market stall in Kabul.  And I could go on. 

Yet, paradoxically, the chance of an act of terrorism in any one place at any given time is infinitely small (it is obviously higher in Baghdad and Mogadishu than in New York or Melbourne, but even then it is rare-ish).

What is unhelpful is to panic and cancel EVERYTHING because you are convinced you will die in a suicide bombing if you stay the course.  A few examples are illustrative of an irrational succumbing to the fear of terrorism:

  • diners in a Toronto restaurant last weekend that was the scene of a targeted killing of a real estate magnate told the media they thought they were going to die in what they believed to be a terrorist incident
  • the Israeli government issued a travel advisory for ‘Western and Northern Europe’ during the Jewish High Holy Days
  • US President Trump has been very irresponsible in raising the fear level with his characterisation of Muslims as terrorists

How is any of this a good thing?  Why in the world would a school board in Edmonton cancel a trip to Paris after the November 2015 attacks when Paris the day after was probably the safest city on the planet in large part due to the increased presence of armed soldiers?  Fear and ignorance, that’s why (and probably parents’ demands, which were born out of fear).

Giving in so easily to fear does many things.  It rewards terrorist groups that aim to make us afraid and over-inflates their pathetic importance.  It has serious implications for many parts of the economy both at home and abroad.  And it undoubtedly makes us more jittery the next time a terrorist attack occurs which makes us react with fear more quickly.

I am not advocating rushing off to Kandahar on vacation tomorrow, but if we value our societies and our freedoms we need to live.  Living means going out, seeing friends, visiting exotic lands and learning from each others’ cultures and histories.  And we cannot do that by barricading ourselves in our duct-taped basements.

I think the right reaction is that of the Brits. They are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’, a way of sneering at danger and uncertainty and forging ahead. That is exactly what a lot of people did in the wake of last Friday’s Tube attack (quote of the day: “I won’t stop taking the Tube because of some idiot”).  They also didn’t waver during the decades of IRA bombings.  I believe there is a lesson in that for all of us.


 

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.  His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available for purchase.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 13:03

Myanmar may be the Next Jihadi Battleground

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Before this piece goes any further I need to spell out that I am not a big fan of the use of force unless absolutely necessary (and when necessary it is best to use it wisely, while still protecting the lives of the force wielders). Clearly it is required in some situations, but if public perception is that it is being applied too quickly or too harshly things go awry. 

That is why police officers are often (rightly or wrongly) convicted in the court of public opinion when some amateur video suggests they have overstepped their authority and shot someone. It is also probably why the anti-fascist/extreme RW/neo-Nazi Antifa may be losing its clear advantage over repugnant skinheads: it seems to resort to the same violence it is protesting against.

In some situations it is easy to understand why a group decides to use violence even if it is hard to provide outright ‘support’.

A case where this appears to be true is unfolding in Myanmar (Burma), a southeast nation still emerging from decades of military rule under what everyone thought would be the wise leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Well, things have turned out a little differently.

Not only has Ms. Suu Kyi been described as autocratic, she has not decried a clear human rights violation in her own country – the army’s campaign of rape, killing and destruction in the northwest corner (Rakhine state), an area where the Rohingya live.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people who probably arrived in Myanmar from neighbouring Bangladesh centuries ago. The state, however, sees them as usurpers and johnny-come-latelys and wants them to return to Bangladesh. It refuses to recognize the Rohingya as an official ethnic group which seriously undermines their representation and rights.

To make things worse, a Buddhist monk some have called Myanmar’s Osama bin Laden, Ashin Wirathu, leads an Islamophobic group called Ma Ba Tha and has inspired Burmese (the dominant ethnic group) attacks on unarmed villagers. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have tried to flee both west to Bangladesh (more recently) or southwards on flimsy boats where they have landed (if they don’t drown) in Thailand and Malaysia, only to be enslaved at times.

In response to the one-sided violence, a group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has arisen and has carried out attacks against Myanmar soldiers. Ms. Suu Kyi has called them ‘terrorists’ and there are allegations that foreign jihadis have joined the group (perhaps because they also call themselves Harakah al-Yaqin – Arabic for ‘the Faith Movement’, which is a little odd since no one in Rakhine speaks Arabic that I know of).

This development was eminently predictable since no outside body, including the UN, seemed capable of doing anything to lessen the violence against the Rohingya. What is very worrying is the possibility that the conflict will draw in foreign jihadis (if it hasn’t already), perhaps some leaving the Islamic State in Iraq/Syria. We saw an outflow from Afghanistan post Soviet withdrawal to Bosnia in the early 1990s and could witness similar movements in a host of wars including Myanmar.

The possibility that Myanmar may become a new jihadi battleground, as well as two dozen other cases, is covered in my soon to be released third book The Lesser Jihads.

Is the ARSA a terrorist group as Myanmar claims? I have no idea and I am the last person to support terrorism. The problem is that we have no idea about the ‘ideology’ the ARSA espouses and, to date, they have only targeted the military. The militants say they just want the killing to stop and self-determination for the Rohingya. We will wait and see how this pans out. 

So while I would prefer a peaceful resolution to the situation in Rakhine, the violent surge by the ARSA is easily comprehended. The Rohingya do not stand a chance against the army and extremist Buddhists (should this not be an oxymoron?).

If Myanmar does not change its approach or the international community does not step up, we will see more killing, perhaps worse. The time for another kind of ‘action’ is now.


Phil Gurski has worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His latest book The Lesser Jihads is available now for pre-order on Amazon.

Published in Commentary

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

The Globe and Mail featured a fascinating story in its weekend edition (August 12) on suicides in Toronto in which people throw themselves in front of subway cars. This has to be a particularly gruesome way to take one’s life and I really feel for the drivers of the subway.  I have heard that they go through serious trauma at having been witness to a death for which they bear no responsibility but in which they play a critical role. 

From the article I learned that:

  • There have been more than 1,400 suicides and suicide attempts in the Toronto subway system since it opened in 1954.  This works out to approximately 22 a year or two a month.
  • There are no ‘obvious links’ tying together the worst stations.
  • It is impossible to determine what drove the poor souls to take their own lives or why they chose the particular station where the deed was done.
  • The worst stations over the past 25 years are very different from one another: a mix of high density ones, less-used ones and even one in a ritzy part of Toronto.
  • According to a psychiatrist who works on suicide prevention with the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) suicide prevention is inherently difficult.
  • Suicide by train remains a rare event.
  • One teen who committed suicide in April 2015 was described as smart, sociable, and active, got good grades and was a competitive swimmer.  Her family only realised she was in pain and felt unable to ask for outside help after they read some of her private writing following her death. 

Why am I talking about suicide prevention in a terrorist blog??  Because as I read the article I saw many parallels with 'violent radicalisation’.  Allow me to explain.

Like subway suicide attempts, radicalisation to violence is rare. I would not go so far as to put a number like twice a month on the incidence rate but it is a relatively infrequent event.  Yes it only takes one violent extremist to cause pain and destruction, but there is zero evidence to suggest we are dealing with a pandemic in Canada.

Analogous to suicide,  we cannot reduce violent radicalisation to a small number of causes pointing to ‘why’ they did it.  In a way, radicalisation to violence, is just like suicide, a choice and not something imposed from outside.  The same tired old ‘explanations’ – alienation, poverty, discrimination, psychological illness – keep getting hauled out and none of them are satisfactory or comprehensive.

The ‘where’ of radicalisation varies as well.  In the mid-2000s the Salaheddin Islamic Centre in Scarborough, east of Toronto, was a ‘hotbed’.  Calgary also saw a disproportionate number of foreign fighters join Islamic State.  None of this is necessarily helpful in predicting the next ‘wave’ of violent extremism.  People from ‘high density downtown neighbourhoods’ as well as the ‘well-heeled parts of north Toronto’ can embrace violent extremism.  There is no ‘vaccine’ for suicide or radicalisation.

Sometimes those who opt to become violent extremists show every sign of being ‘normal’: successful, well-adjusted, popular people with promising futures like that teen in Toronto.  It is important to get at the hidden signs to determine if there are things happening under the surface that should cause concern.  I have always maintained that there are ALWAYS signs, if you know what to look for. It is this belief that led me to write my first book The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (Rowman and Littlefield 2015). 

I have found analogies to be a useful learning instrument and I hope that this post helps you understand a little more about violent radicalisation.  It is also fascinating that seemingly disparate issues like suicide and violent extremism have a lot in common.  After all, according to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;  there is nothing new under the sun”.  Maybe we should bear that in mind when we try to understand phenomena like violent radicalisation and terrorism.


 Phil Gurski's latest book The Lesser Jihads: Bringing the Islamist extremism fight to the world is available for pre-order on Amazon. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Sometimes, small things point to large changes.

During my short visit last week to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of that country’s leading political scientists to talk about terrorism and PVE – i.e. Preventing Violent Extremism, the newest iteration of CVE – Countering Violent Extremism.

We had a wide-ranging chat in his book-lined office and I also learned that he had studied at Carleton University in Ottawa just before I became a sessional instructor in linguistics at that institution.  Small world indeed. Our conversation was very illuminating, especially when it came to the topic of a shift in Islamic influence in Bangladesh.

So, what was that ‘small thing’?  You may see this as insignificant, but I think it speaks volumes.  There is apparently a tendency in Bangladesh these days to replace the everyday phrase ‘khoda hafez’ (literally ‘may God protect you’ but colloquially used to mean ‘goodbye’) with ‘allah hafez’. 

The difference, of course, is the substitution of the Arabic word for God (‘Allah’) for the Persian one (‘khoda’). 

This tiny shift is nothing less than a sign of the invasion of conservative, intolerant Sunni Islam into the former East Pakistan (more on that later).

The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.

Bangladeshi Islam has traditionally been Sunni of the Hanafi school with an important influence from Sufi interpretations of the faith.  The growing dominance of Salafi Sunnism is fairly recent and worrisome.  Several terrorist attacks and assassinations have been attributed to Salafi jihadists in the past few years. 

The victims have come from communities which the Salafis see as enemies (in truth, a very long list): Sufis, Shia, non-Muslims (Hindus, Christians), gays…  Perhaps the most serious attack – in what has been called Bangladesh’s ‘9/11’ – was the July 1, 2016 massacre of non-Muslims at a cafe in Dhaka, an operation masterminded by a Canadian terrorist from Windsor, Ontario.

The uptick in violence has many Banglas worried.  Everyone with whom I spoke – government agencies, the UN, academics – are all concerned about where this violence is headed. 

And, it is not only among the Salafi jihadis that violence is being promoted.  Political parties too are jumping on the bandwagon.  It does not help that power in the country has been seesawing over the past decade between two female-led parties that routinely gang up on the other once in office.  The current government, led by the Awami League, has also given in to some outrageous ideas by radical Islamists, such as a demand to remove a statue of Lady Justice from the grounds of the Supreme Court. This ‘dalliance’ with extremists is not helpful.

The apparent sanction of violence in the name of religion threatens to lead to more deaths. 

Bangladesh faces a difficult decision in the run up to national elections next year.  The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina can continue to do deals with the Salafis in order to court their support, but this will only cause more hardship and maintain the transformation of tolerant Bangladeshi Islam to intolerant Salafism. 

At the same time, the regime has to confront the serious Islamist extremist (i.e. terrorist) threat, but must do so while keeping human rights in mind.  The elite Rapid Action Battalion, a counter terrorism body, has been criticised by some rights groups for extra-judicial killings and disappearances.

Bangladesh was born in a bloody civil war in 1971 when the former East Pakistan split from what we now call Pakistan.  The powers that be in Islamabad were not too happy with the independence desires of the eastern half of a country – geographically separated by India in between – and engaged in a slaughter whose victims are estimated at anywhere from 300,000 to three million people. 

In fact, trials of those responsible for the massacre are still being held these days.  It would be truly tragic if another wave of violence is on the horizon. 

But back to that change in ‘goodbye’.  Salafis hate the Shia more than any other group and believe that the only good Shia is a dead one.  Their intolerance has even extended to rejecting a Bangla phrase that contains a Farsi (Persian) word (recall that most Persians are Shia Muslims) for an Arabic one (NB linguistically this  makes little sense: Bangla and Farsi are related Indo-European languages whereas Arabic is a non-related Semitic language). 

This may sound silly and trivial, but sometimes we do have to pay attention to the small things in life.


Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 20 July 2017 08:27

Suffer the Children of Islamic State

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

If there is one searing image of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe it is that of the orphanages of Romania. The regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed both contraception and abortion.  As a consequence, thousands of women left babies that were either unwanted or those that they could not care for at state institutions.  These institutions were understaffed and underfunded. 

When the wall fell  (Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day 1989) the world got a look at these orphanages and what it saw was beyond shocking.  Children were often tied to cribs, rocking back and forth in repetitive ways that spoke of a lack of human contact.  Food was insufficient and the care devoted to life’s most vulnerable was largely absent.  A global effort to help these kids ensued and while some undoubtedly ended up okay, thanks probably to the amazing resilience of the human body and mind, many did not and never recovered from their tragic start in life.

We are now faced with a similar situation in Iraq and Syria now that the parody of a state that called itself one – Islamic State – is sinking fast.  Thousands of ‘fighters’ have died at the hands of airstrikes, in battle and in the flames of suicide attacks.  Tens of thousands of civilians in cities like Mosul, taken by IS and ruled with an iron fist, have also died.  And then there are the children.

One of the most striking aspects of the social Frankenstein that was IS was their effort to create an actual self-sustaining society.Unlike other jihads (Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya…), IS went out of its way to create an image of a normal, functioning state.  Men were encouraged to leave their homes in the West and elsewhere to take up arms to ‘defend Islam’.  Women were encouraged to come and marry those men and help create future generations of IS ‘Islamic Utopia’.  Out of that arrangement came children, naturally, including young boys IS called the ‘lion cubs of the Caliphate’ (the men were the ‘lions’). 

Some of these children were urged (coerced?) to take part in truly heinous acts of violence such as executions and many more were present at public beheadings.  There was even one case of an Australian jihadi who posted a picture of his son, who appears to be between 8 - 10, holding a severed head.  Truly disturbing.

To me all of this is a no-brainer.  These children deserve our help.

Now that IS is all but defeated as a functioning group, what do we do with these children?  We know that war is hell in all cases and that children suffer disproportionately when exposed to death and brutality.  In some cases kids in Iraq were kidnapped by IS and either raped or forced to do terrible things. 

There is already one case of a Yazidi mom in Winnipeg who has learned that her 12-year old son is still alive: she wants him back with her.

To me all of this is a no-brainer. These children deserve our help. Professionals with seasoned experience in dealing with the trauma of war need to be found and persuaded to assist in this regard.  It won’t be easy: just as in the case of Romania, some children will be scarred for life.

We can both hate the barbarity that is IS and feel for the children that are its product. These young people are not at fault and we should do whatever we can to provide them with the best chances to achieve a normal life.  If anything positive can come out of the enormous tragedy that was Islamic State maybe this is it. 

Phil Gurski worked in the Canadian intelligence community for more than 30 years.  His latest book, The Lesser Jihads, will be published on September 15.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 06 July 2017 09:42

Let’s Shout these Far-right Losers Down

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

As I have stated on many occasions, the threat to Canada from Islamist extremist groups represents by far the single greatest priority for our security services – CSIS, the RCMP and provincial and municipal police forces. 

We have seen around a dozen plots, both foiled and successful, since 9/11, the most recent one being the attack at a Canadian Tire in Scarborough on June 3.  Thankfully, even in the cases where people subscribing to hateful and loathsome interpretations of Islam were able to set in motion their terrorist intent, few have died. 

To date, only Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent (October 20, 2014) and Warrant Officer Nathan Cirillo (October 22, 2014) – RIP gentlemen – have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. Three terrorists have also been killed by law enforcement so far in Canada (Martin Couture-Rouleau, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Aaron Driver).

At the same time we cannot ignore other manifestations of the terrorist threat.  For instance, we have been witnessing a worrying spike in demonstrations and antagonism by self-styled ‘patriot’ groups (is it just me or does this sound very American?).  A few examples will help illustrate my point:

On July 1, a group of people belonging to the Quebec groups La Meute (French for ‘the pack’) and Storm Alliance showed up at the Vermont-Quebec border to protest the entry of asylum seekers into Canada.

Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has warned that the ‘Sons of Odin’ are not afraid to use violence and may engage in ‘anti-immigrant vigilantism‘.

Five serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces participated in a Proud Boys crashing of a First Nations protest at the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax. Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance is not impressed.

And these are just three samples of late. In addition a Vice.com article recently provided a useful overview of anti-Islamic groups in this country.  The reading is not comforting.  So what’s up?

Ignorance and hate, that’s what’s up. 

These groups hide behind some self-styled notions of patriotism and nationalism in their claims that they are protecting Canada from a litany of ills: Muslims, illegal immigrants, uppity First Nations… They often shroud themselves in our flag as if they are somehow the only ones that ‘get’ what it means to be Canadian. 

They usually show up wearing black, looking all fascist-like and give off strong signs that they are willing to resort to violence to make whatever point they are trying to make. Some appear to be channeling some inner Norse god fetish (Sons of Odin).

What level of threat they truly pose is unclear. La Meute claims on its Facebook page that it has more than 8,000 members: the ‘World Coalition Against Islam (WCAI)’ claims 12,000.  While these numbers are astonishing it is unclear what a ‘member’ means. 

I am not saying that we should ignore these people, but I am not sure what effort needs to be leveraged to monitor them to keep their potentially violent acts in check. We need more data and more analysis on what this is all about.

In any event I suspect that neither CSIS nor the RCMP have spare resources to adequately carry out national security investigations against these people to determine just how dangerous they are. The Islamist extremist threat is still using up the lion’s share of officers as it should. Maybe both agencies need a boost in personnel to deal with this new menace.

One thing is certain: we Canadians have a role to play. We need to shout these losers down.

Just as the vast, vast majority of Canadian Muslims regularly denounce acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam, so must all Canadians say loudly and unreservedly that these folk do not represent anything but hate. They are not devoted to our ‘protection’. Their activities are neither welcome nor tolerated. We must express our rejection of their bile, as counter demonstrators did in Calgary.

Hate is hate, irrespective of motive, and we have a duty to say we will not stand by and allow it to fester.

Phil Gurski spent more than 30 years in the Canadian intelligence community.  His latest book "The Lesser Jihads" is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 27 June 2017 08:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 08 June 2017 01:47

What to do About Afghanistan?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

I have come to know the journalist Michael Petrou over the past few years.  He would sometimes call me to seek my views on terrorism when he was with Macleans magazine and I relied heavily on his book ‘Renegades’ – the story of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War – for a section of my second book on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.  I happen to think he is a great writer and a solid scholar.

In a recent piece of analysis on the CBC Web site Michael noted that Afghanistan is ‘teetering on the edge of a dark abyss’ and that Canada, which lost 158 soldiers in its decade-long post 9/11 deployment, ‘should join its closest allies and return to Afghanistan.’  He argues that much progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 (infant mortality, a fledgling democracy, female school attendance) but that true advancement will be measured over decades.  For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be leaning towards a peacekeeping mission in West Africa (possibly Mali) although even there the government is waffling.

And so the question remains: should Canada recommit to Afghanistan?  Great question with no easy answer, especially in the context of the bombing in Kabul on May 31 that killed over 150. I will play the classic Canadian card and straddle the fence (joke: why did the Canadian cross the road? A: to get to the middle), providing views to supporting both a yes and a no response.  It is not that I am normally wishy-washy: it’s just that there are solid arguments on both sides.

Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

I fully believe that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We tried that once – after the ragtag mujahedin kicked Soviet ass (with oodles of outside help it must be added) – and look where that got us.  Warlordism, brutality and the arrival of the Taliban, which in turn played genial Afghan hosts to Al Qaeda.  Afghanistan became a de facto failed state (it is hard to describe the Taliban regime as a ‘state’) and we know that failed states are prime real estate for terrorist groups (Somalia, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).  If we don’t want to see the rise of yet another terrorist organisation on the scale of AQ we might want to keep our presence there robust.

Besides, don’t the Afghan people deserve a normal life? Given that the Afghan government appears incapable of providing the conditions for one shouldn’t we offer, on humanitarian grounds if nothing else?  We will still run into the problem of Western ways clashing with Afghan culture but surely there are universal principles we can help maintain.

On the other hand, Afghanistan is not known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing.  Many have tried to tame and control the country and none have succeeded.  In addition there is the problem of how long. We were there for more than ten years and while, as Michael points out, some progress has been made the place is still a mess and may be getting worse. Will we need to establish an open-ended mission? How much will it cost?  Are Canadians willing to accept more casualties in a country far away and little understood?  Is the Canadian military equipped (materiel and human resource-wise) to continue multiple tours for our men and women in uniform?  What is the end game?  How do we measure our success?  What is our exit strategy?  Does anyone have an answer to these?  Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has an interesting blog on lessons learned the first time around.

I fear that this conundrum falls into the ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t category’.  We cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan even if we seek to measure it solely through the lens of national interests and security. Afghanistan needs  the help of the international community and that community must respond.

And yet those questions are still there.  Furthermore why Afghanistan and not Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic?  Aren’t they as worthy?

Canada may be taking its time with this decision, and that may be frustrating to some, but a sober second thought is indeed required in this instance. If we are both to honour the deaths of those 158 soldiers and prevent 158 more we need to think this through.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Here we go again.  I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days, all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.

The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 22 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead.  Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’. 

What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.

I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the U.K. 

At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation. 

There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy. 

So no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism.

On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess).  Some are not; attacks are carried out and people die or are injured. 

So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the U.K. equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source). 

'Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff. That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000).  It takes anywhere from 20 - 40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest.  Do the math. 

Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120,000 officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time.  Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors. 

That, dear New Canadian Media readers. is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep U.K. citizens safe in a very challenging environment.  And as for those tips from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016, the U.K. Channel program, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals.  Do the math there too please.  These numbers speak to a serious problem in U.K. society, one that goes way beyond MI5.

So, no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the U.K. government’s fault or the fault of British foreign policy.  It was not the community’s fault.  It was not Islam’s fault.  It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).

We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks.  And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely. 

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life.  One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however.  That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.

Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.

Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart.  As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners.  Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?

The 'true' interpretation of Islam

One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views.  Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences.  Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.

When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam.  Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'.  As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.

At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic.  That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia.  Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands.  There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.

Making a change

Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century.  This move should be welcomed and supported.

NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash.  Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. 

There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top.  The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.

I wish the Indonesian efforts every success.  The world certainly needs less hate.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/ 

Published in Commentary
Page 1 of 3

Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

Zo2 Framework Settings

Select one of sample color schemes

Google Font

Menu Font
Body Font
Heading Font

Body

Background Color
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Top Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Header Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainmenu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Slider Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainframe Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Breadcrumb Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Menu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image
Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image