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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
Sunday, 23 April 2017 12:15

We Can Choose Not to be Afraid

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

We live in a world where fear is easy to spread.  There is no shortage of evidence that bad things happen and that there are some bad actors in a lot of places. 

The rise of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media have a lot to do with this. Sometimes, this fear is disproportionate to reality. The fear of violent crime is a good example: statistics in this country and others show pretty convincingly that violence of this nature is at historic lows and yet people still rank fear of violent crime high on their list of anxieties.

Terrorism fits here as well, as I have often said. 

While there is no doubt that terrorism exists and we are reminded of it daily (less so in the West and more so in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia), we still have to maintain an objective perspective.  Even if terrorism occurs more frequently today than it did, say, 40 years ago (although historical analysis might even differ on that point) it is still a rare event. 

It is impossible to claim that terrorism is more rampant than non-terrorist crime for instance (shootings, domestic violence, etc.) let alone other kinds of death (disease, car accidents, etc.).

"Manufactured" fear

Terrorism is different from other forms of violent deaths because of its inherent ability to cause fear. That is why we call it terrorism – it instills terror and fear.  That in essence is what the terrorists are trying to achieve, making us afraid of what they can do so that we will make decisions about things (foreign policy is a primary goal) under duress, decisions we would not normally make.

Some fears are natural – fear of snakes or spiders – and may go back a long way in the history of humanity. Others are manufactured. War and terrorism would fit here. If a fear is manufactured there must be a manufacturer and an audience (or recipient) of that fear.  The audience, I would argue, has a choice of whether to accept or embrace the fear. It is as simple as that. 

In other words, we play an enormous role in our own freedom from fear. We can simply choose not to be afraid.

Defeating terrorism

I am not trying to oversimplify the terrorist threat or the challenge in dealing with it.  This is indeed a hard problem that has always defied, and will most likely always defy, simple solutions. We will not 'defeat' terrorism anymore than we will 'defeat' crime in general. 

But we can 'defeat' the goal of the terrorists by refusing to be cowed by their actions and their propaganda.  We can decide not to allow them to make us afraid.

I'd like to end with a quote by the Swedish Prime Minister in the wake of this month's terrorist attack in Stockholm (an Uzbek terrorist drove a stolen beer truck into a pedestrian mall, killing four and wounding 15) as it really sends a strong message about fear: "I believe today’s [gathering] was a clear message from Stockholm and Sweden that we intend to keep our open, warm and inclusive society. That was the message. Terrorism will never defeat Sweden.”

Would that we all elected to not give in to fear and terror and tell the terrorists that they will never win.

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
Monday, 27 March 2017 10:20

Why Do We Keep Missing The Terrorists?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa  

I am sure you have all read the stories. In the aftermath of an arrest of a mass murderer (or a terrorist), neighbours, friends and colleagues are interviewed about what they knew about the suspect. 

Here is what they tend to say:

  • I never saw it coming!
  • He was the nicest guy!
  • I can't believe that he would have done such a thing!

In the wake of the London attacks, neighbours of the terrorist who was shot dead on the scene, Khalid Masood, told reporters that "he had been the model suburban neighbour: keeping to himself, washing his car, mowing his lawn, even passing on a few footballing tips to the local kids".  Here is another offering from a man who stayed in a hotel with Masood: "Nothing in his demeanour or his looks would have given me any thoughts that would make me think he was anything but normal."  That description is not consistent with someone who ran over pedestrians and tried to storm the British Parliament.

In the case of a Belgian man believed to have prepared to strike people with a vehicle in Antwerp – possibly inspired by terrorism (an attempt that occurred the day after the London atrocity) – a friend told the media 'I am almost 100 per cent sure that this person – in my eyes – was not capable of committing a terror attack".

So, what gives?

Telltale signs

Simply stated, people do not know what to look for. I say this not out of arrogance or elitism but rather out of experience.  I have interviewed the parents of children (now dead) who have expressed complete bafflement regarding what happened to their offspring.  And yet when the signs of problematic behaviour and telltale ideology are presented to them, a light goes on and they bemoan the fact that if they had known then what they know now, they would have been in a better position to take action (at a minimum challenge their offspring to justify the attitudes they held and at a maximum get outside help).

I am not so certain that this lack of insight is limited to cases of terrorism. There are most probably similar, yet different, signs that surface when a person abandons long-held beliefs and behaviours and opts for a new direction that brings them trouble (drug use, gang membership, general criminality).  And unless you know what those signs are, you are not in a position to do anything about it.

No template

What, then, is the answer?  It is simple actually: training and awareness raising.  And a good place to start, if I may be so bold, is to have a look at my 2015 book The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and terrorism in the West (Rowman and Littlefield).  In there you will find an entire chapter on signs to take note of when someone is probably going down the path to violent extremism. The book was based on a decade-and-a-half of research carried out while I was at CSIS, so it is heavily data-driven.

When it comes to what to do about someone about whom concerns have been raised, that is a little bit trickier.  Parents/siblings/friends/religious leaders have to decide whether the individual in question can be reasoned with and deflected from a bad end or whether the case is serious enough – i.e. there is a threat to national security – to involve CSIS or the RCMP.  That call can only be made on a case by case basis: there is no template to help in that regard.

In the end, there are always overt signs of violent radicalisation.  Always.  It is just a matter of knowing what to keep an eye out for.


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
Sunday, 12 March 2017 20:25

Creeping Hopelessness in Terror Fight

Commentary by Phil Gurski

We seem to be having a hard time figuring out what to call our struggle with terrorism. Leaving aside the belief, held by me and others, that framing counter terrorism in terms of war is a bad idea, it is clear that we keep changing our minds about what we are really involved in. 

After the clumsy misstep by U.S. President George W. Bush to label it a “Crusade”, we moved from the ‘war on terrorism’ to the ‘long war’ to the ‘global struggle against violent extremism (GSAVE) to ‘countering violent extremism’.  The latest iteration, which I read today in a New York Times op-ed, has me worried, as much for its pessimistic tone as its psychological effect on all of us.

According to Brian Castner, a formal explosives disposal specialist in the U.S. Army, some in that country’s military have begun to refer to the fight against terrorism as the ‘Forever War’.  This is not a good development.

War imagery

Let’s think about this phrase for a moment.  Forever.  That’s a long time.  And, what is worse, is that forever has no end.  In other words, we will be fighting terrorism and terrorists in a war with no termination.  No victory.  No truce.  No surrender.  No resolution.  Just war, interminable war.

In some ways we should have known this from the start.  Wars against abstract or common nouns don’t end because these nouns don’t reflect tangible entities.  Terrorism is no more a defined object than are drugs, poverty and cancer.  These ‘things’ are either tactics (terrorism), social ills (drugs, poverty) or natural phenomena (cancer).  They don’t have armies – yes Islamic State has a pseudo army with quasi soldiers – or uniforms or well-delineated structures.  You might as well declare war on mist. Yet we frame all kinds of social causes as war.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see a role for the military in counter terrorism measures, even if I disagree with the war metaphor.  But that role has to be constrained and carefully deployed.  Against IS or Boko Haram in northern Nigeria there is space for the army.  After all, however, this fight is for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies on the one hand and civil society on the other.  The former are tasked with taking care of those who wish to do us harm, while the latter look after addressing the conditions under which people turn to terrorism so that, in the end, fewer make that decision.

Accepting death and destruction

We must stop using war imagery when we talk about terrorism.  Aside from the reasons just cited, if those in the armed services are seeing this as the ‘forever war’ what does this mean?  If means that a hopelessness has entered into the minds of those we send to confront terrorists. 

Hopelessness not only breeds depression but it serves as an obstacle to other possibilities. If we convince ourselves that this war is eternal and that we will have to keep killing terrorists, iteration after iteration (Al Qaeda, IS in Iraq, IS, Al Shabaab, AQAP …) we consign ourselves to a non-solution.  I can think of little more futile than accepting death and destruction as the only way forward. There has to be a better way – I think a lot of people are involved in alternative approaches already – and we have to find it and implement it now.

The First World War was once called the ‘war to end all wars’.  We all know how that phrase ended up.  We need to get smart about terrorism before the Forever War becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For our own sakes as well as those of future generations.


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).

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski

On rare occasions I pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or World Weekly News when I shop for groceries.  It's not that I am particularly a fan, but they are strategically located at the checkout counter with their flashy, outrageous headlines.  Some are truly unbelievable. I think my all-time favourite was 'Titanic survivor found on ice floe, vows never to eat fish again.'

These periodicals deal in what we now call fake news, albeit with a difference: the stories were never intended to be taken seriously and it is hard to believe that anyone could be influenced by their stark departure from the truth.

We are now living in a very different time where outright lies are taken seriously and they do affect the views and opinions of some people on very serious issues. The claim that crime is up (when it is down in many places) has led to calls for 'law and order' campaigns.  The belief that vaccinations lead to autism (this was debunked years ago and the scientist making the claim shown to be a fraud) has made some parents eschew life-saving vaccines, causing outbreaks of diseases we thought we had beaten, like measles.

In Canada, there is another onslaught of fake news that centres on our Muslim communities and supposed links to terrorism and clandestine efforts to take over our country.  Several Canadian cities have seen demonstrations that appear to have coincided with a motion by a Liberal backbencher to call on the government to look into and report on Islamophobia and other forms of hate.  Among the allegations made by some of those demonstrating in Canadian streets are:

  • M103 (the Liberal MP's motion) is an attack on free speech
  • there is a secret campaign to bring Sharia law to Canada
  • legitimate dissent is in danger in Canada

Reasonable limits

One of the great things about living in this country is that we are all free to express our views and opinions to a tremendous degree.  There are limits, though, and these limits are both legitimate and necessary.  If someone calls for violence, whether against a specific group or in general, that constitutes a crime (we'll leave aside the difficulties in prosecuting these offences).  Incitement to beat another person to a pulp should not be ignored and I am confident that all Canadians would agree with this.

No, M103 is not a blanket on free speech, it is a reasonable call for looking into a worrisome rise in hatred online and on certain radio shows.  Neither is it focussed solely on Islamophobia, although the highlighting of this particular form of potential hatred is not surprising in the wake of the awful massacre at a Quebec Islamic Centre a few weeks ago.  The State has both a right and a duty to investigate individuals and groups who, through their actions or their language, can reasonably be seen as urging others (or themselves) to use violence against anyone. To ignore these actions would constitute State negligence.

Persistent myths

While I support the fundamental right of the Islamophobes and the anti-immigrant lobby (thankfully small) in this country to voice their opinions, I also feel it necessary to address the 'alternative facts' they use to make their arguments. I will limit my comments to three here:

a) no, immigrants are not a drain on the system, commit more crimes than native-born and they do not steal 'Canadian' jobs.  Study after study after study has shown that immigrants are a net bonus to their adoptive societies and that most integrate within a generation. Those that veer towards criminal acts will be dealt with by the same authorities that deal with all others who engage in crime.

b) no, there is no 'creeping Sharia' campaign in Canada. The last time a government (the Ontario Liberals back in 2004) considered allowing limited Sharia for some family issues, the greatest opponents were Muslim women. In the end the McGuinty government changed its mind and also got rid of other forms of religious arbitration, noting that there  is 'one law for all Canadians'.

c) no, the Muslim Brotherhood is not taking over Canadian mosques and planning a stealth terrorism offensive.  Reports alluding to this are comical at best, bad analysis at worst.

Canada is proudly a land of immigrants and it is those immigrants who have built this country and will continue to do so. The vast majority are just average people looking to better their lives as well as those of their families. Yes, there are bad apples, and we will deal with those.

To conclude, here is a great quote I read in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs.  I could not have said things any better:

"Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities."

Amen to that.


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).

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski 

There have been many times in history where statements made publicly have turned out to be somewhat less than true. Remember the famous "Dewey defeats Truman" headline in the 1948 US Presidential election?  What about then CIA Director George Tenet's claim that intelligence pointing to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk"?

Then we have German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's 19th century boast 'God is dead', meaning that He no longer represented a source of morality or inspiration for humans. Time magazine repeated the statement in question form on its cover in 1966. In light of the wave of terrorism motivated in part by religion (largely, but not exclusively, Islam) over the past 40 years I think we can safely conclude  that this belief is about as accurate as that made by the Chairman of IBM in 1943 when he confidently said that "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers".

God, in whatever form people conceive him, continues to give billions of people hope, guidance and joy. Yes, religion has led some to incredible heights of creativity and art (listen to a Bach mass and tell me you're not moved) but it as also driven us to the lowest depths of horror and slaughter. There are far too many examples to list here. In any event, it appears highly likely that God and religion are here to stay.

Insulting a faith

An interesting question is raised, however, over what we as societies and governments should do to protect the right of all to worship in whatever way they so choose. A lot of Western states have this right enshrined in their constitutions and a few go on to say that the State shall neither choose an 'official' religion nor favour one over another. This is all well and good but to what extent should the government go with respect to perceived (or blatant) insults to one particular faith?

I am referring here to blasphemy laws. Most, if not all societies, had active blasphemy legislation or practice for centuries, although it is rare for any Western country to lay charges in this area these days. In other parts of the world, the practice  is still in place and large segments of the population take blasphemy seriously. Very seriously. 

The Indonesian governor of the state of Jakarta has been charged with insulting Islam (he is ethnic Chinese) and large crowds have called for his ouster – and worse. 

And in Pakistan, a Punjab governor was assassinated by one of his bodyguards (who was subsequently treated as a hero) for his criticism of the country's blasphemy laws. Don't forget the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the death of UK author Salman Rushdie over his alleged religious faux pas in his book The Satanic Verses back in 1989.

The other day the Danish government  laid blasphemy charges against a 42-year-old man who filmed himself burning a copy of the Quran in his backyard.  The move recalls a very different decision not to take similar action against the Danish newspaper that published infamous 'Muhammad cartoons' back in 2006, an act that led to several terrorist attacks.

Does it make any sense to charge a citizen with blasphemy today? In a word, no.

Antidote for ignorance

I have often criticized those that willfully and ignorantly make fun of religion – like the American woman who placed pieces of bacon between the pages of the Quran – not because I think they should be punished but because their actions strike me as childish and little more than attention seeking. I have seen little to suggest that the majority of those who pull these stunts are making any serious point about freedom of anything beyond the freedom to be stupid. 

If they want to put themselves out there and incur both the wrath of true believers, as well as the attention of terrorist groups, they should be free to do so.  But I'd like us to stop using the power of the State to regulate this form of expression and I'd like religious groups to ignore the morons and not react so predictably to each attempt at insult and infuriate, let alone serious scholarship that challenges deeply-held convictions.

Charging someone with blasphemy achieves little. It only provides more media and more publicity for the attention seekers and is almost always counter-productive. I recall the Catholic protests over Monty Python's Life of Brian which only made the film more popular.  There is no room in the West in 2017 for this kind of legislation.  We have hate laws, which are controversial enough and hard to prove as I noted in a recent blog, and we should use that tool where warranted (which I think is rare). I would also suggest that no country needs these laws, but am neither in a position to advise nor influence what happens in Pakistan or Indonesia.

As in most things, as I have stated before, the best antidote to ignorance is knowledge. Those who get their kicks poking fun at or viciously attacking religious beliefs should be argued with, not censured.  And for those that end up getting killed by terrorists who claim to be acting in the name of their deity, while I cannot ever condone that action, neither can I feel sorry for the victims.  Sometimes stupidity masking itself poorly as social commentary has its terrible consequences.

We cannot make being an ass illegal. If we were to do so, we'd have to build a lot more prisons. We need to address the lack of knowledge with knowledge, not State sanction.


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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski

IF there was any doubt about what a Donald Trump presidency means for the U.S. over the next four years, and by extension for all of us, there is little doubt now. In the first week alone, a flurry of executive orders have been signed on a whole bunch of issues that Mr. Trump promised he would act on. 

Of interest to me is, of course, the ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The Trump administration is selling this as a national security issue – a way to keep America and Americans safe.

But is it?

On the one hand, yes.  Terrorists from those seven nations will be unable to enter the U.S. and carry out their heinous plots against innocent people.

The question, however, is: how many individuals who have carried out terrorist attacks in the U.S. after 9/11 came from those countries (or from any country for that matter) to execute their plans?  To my knowledge, the answer is precisely – zero.  Every attack has been perpetrated by either U.S. citizens or landed immigrants who radicalised almost entirely in the U.S.  Hence, a ban on citizens from the listed countries would not have stopped a single incident.

Fact is, immigration has zero relationship to terrorism, absolutely zero.

As an aside, it is of interest that several countries are not on the list – i.e. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, would it not have made sense to put that country on the list?

Immigration a lifeblood

Some would argue that since a few people who went on to commit terrorism in the U.S. were born elsewhere, a ban on Muslim immigration (Mr. Trump’s denials notwithstanding, his act is exactly that) is justified.  Perhaps, but immigration is a risk at the best of times. 

How do we ensure that an immigrant does not become a murderer?  A rapist?  An embezzler?  A wife abuser?  A tax cheat?  As there are no guarantees, maybe we should have no immigration at all. 

I am kidding – immigration is the lifeblood of a society and the few negatives do not measure up to the many positives.

It is highly unlikely that this move by the new U.S. government will have any real effect on terrorism.  Attacks will still be planned by those living in the U.S.  A small number of Muslims will continue to be radicalised to violence in the U.S.  Terrorism will remain a very rare tragedy.

Propaganda bonus

We must also not discount the propaganda bonus this gives actual terrorist groups like Islamic State.  IS has long said that the West hates Islam and that Western governments do not want Muslims to live in their countries.  As a result, Muslims must perform hijra (migrate) to a Muslim land.  The Trump move underscores and supports what the terrorists are saying.

I am happy that Canada’s Trudeau government is not going down that path.  Canada is proudly a nation of immigrants, including Muslim ones, and will remain so, I hope.

Terrorism is real and requires real solutions.  The Trump administration immigration ban is not one of them.

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
Thursday, 19 January 2017 12:38

Most Terrorists are Average Joes

Commentary by Phil Gurski

Just how sophisticated are most terrorists anyway?

Sometimes, I think most of us get terrorism very, very wrong.  I am not sure whether this is due to the Hollywood effect where terrorists seem to be popping up in more and more films each year.  Can anyone point to a movie from the 1960s where violent extremists played a major role?  Aside, of course, from the cartoonish Bond villains.

In many of these cinematographic offerings, the terrorists come across as cold, calculating, evil monsters who carefully plan their acts of terror and can only be defeated by the equally calculating good guys – Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer (why are all the counter terrorism heroes called Jack?), etc.  Sometimes our guys resort to unsavoury methods to stop the heinous plotters of death.  Oh well, that is how it goes in the name of keeping us safe.

It is beyond obvious that film is not always a mirror for reality. I maybe a voice in the wilderness if I were to call for more accurate portrayals of terrorism and intelligence, but it may be that our image of terrorism as it is shown to us on the silver screen does us a disservice.

Zero counter-surveillance 

I am referring here to the belief that all terrorists are high-level operatives who plan their death and destruction with the utmost secrecy, meaning that it is next to impossible for security and law enforcement agencies to detect and neutralize them before it is too late (unless they have a guy named Jack on staff!).

The reality is that this is not always accurate.  The way it really works came to light in Turkey when the terrorist accused of carrying out the attack on an Istanbul night club on New Year's Eve chose his venue randomly after he was scared off his first preference by heightened security.

You read that right. 

The terrorist who killed 39 people did not engage in careful pre-attack surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking of the place to bear the brunt of his ideological hatred.  And he is not alone.  Many terrorists, at least in my experience in Canada, are not the most sophisticated, and are frankly, incapable of carrying out meticulous planning. 

They have next to zero counter-surveillance skills, often choose their targets almost accidentally and rarely do dry runs to test security. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the terrorist who attacked the War Memorial and Parliament in Ottawa in October 2014, may have been an uncommon exception as there are indications he toured Centre Block several weeks before his ill-fated assault.

The "B-team"

Given this, an immediate question arises: who is more dangerous – the terrorist who dots all his i's and crosses all his t's or the one who shows up one day and kills?  My money is on the latter. 

Those who take the time to ensure success expose themselves to scrutiny, monitoring, eavesdropping, human source penetration, intelligence sharing, and, perhaps most importantly, time – time for state agencies to figure out what they are bent on doing.  The one who does no pre-planning is hard to identify and stop since his plot is shorter in the preparatory stages and involves fewer steps that can screw up. 

Truth be told, both types can succeed and both can be foiled, but prior warning and longer planning cycles are the enemy of the terrorist and the friend of our spies.

I think we need to challenge our view of terrorism and terrorists. They are not all supermen (and women) with other worldly powers that are next to impossible to match. Most are just average joes with little foresight and low intellect who decide to act rashly on whatever grievance motivates them. 

That does not mean we should dismiss the "B-team" – they can still do a lot of damage – but it does imply we should not give the terrorists more credit than they deserve.

They get enough free publicity already that feeds their egos and inflates their importance.  Let us not add to that.

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

I have just returned from Oslo where I was thrilled to catch up with one of my favourite terrorist experts, Thomas Hegghammer. Hegghammer and his colleagues at the FFI – Norway's Defence Research Establishment – have published some amazing work over the last decade or so and I have personally learned much from them.

In the course of a discussion about resource allocation to confront terrorism and terrorists, he made an interesting comment. He noted the fact that all over the world law enforcement and security services have redeployed resources away from some files (organized crime, drugs, etc.) to terrorism. 

More importantly, within the terrorism sphere, money and people have been concentrated in one direction – Islamist extremism – thus leaving other kinds of terrorism – right wing extremism, for example – relatively unwatched.  In this light, Hegghammer noted that we should be surprised that there has not been more right-wing terrorism, especially attacks that kill many.

Undetected plots

Think about this.  The fact that we have overloaded men, women and energy on Islamist extremist files has allowed us to stop so many plots.

The more people you have watching something, the more intelligence and evidence you can gather. The more you know, greater the chances of disruption.

The other side of that coin is that fewer resources devoted to right-wing extremism could imply that more plots go undetected and hence are more successful.  And, yet, that is precisely what is NOT happening. A good question at this point would be: why?

Mass casualties

First, we have to, of course, acknowledge that there have been right-wing attacks in the recent past and some mass casualty ones: Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and Timothy McVeigh in the U.S. in 1995 are two good examples.  Aside from these, we might want to throw in the attack on a church in South Carolina in the summer of 2015, but truth is there are not very many.

When you compare right-wing and Islamist extremism, you immediately see that the latter has carried out mass casualty attacks (9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, Nice, Brussels, the list goes on and on) at rates which are very much higher.

There are a few suggestive ways of looking at why.  Maybe, the right-wing world does not embrace mass casualty attacks as much as jihadis do. 

There are all too many e-zines and social media propaganda that cajole and encourage these operations within Islamist extremism, but perhaps not as many in right-wing circles. Maybe, there is an inherent difficulty among right-wing extremists in justifying such attacks. 

Perhaps, the leadership is just not there. To be honest, I simply do not know, in large part because I don't follow these kinds of terrorists so closely. 

Whatever the reason, you cannot escape the fact that we have not seen mass casualty attacks and having our attention tied to the jihadis has not opened the door for the far right.

Of course, things can change and we may see such strategies develop.

There certainly is justifiable concern over the rise of the violent right in parts of Europe (and in President-elect DonaldTrump's America?) and we will have to turn our gaze in that direction (or hire more people to do so). 

Nevertheless, it is important not to use past events as predictors of future ones. We may never see waves of 9/11s carried out by the far right.

Let's hope so.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

The surprise – at least to some – victory by Republican candidate Donald Trump over his Democrat rival Hillary Clinton in Wednesday’s U.S. presidential election has already led to speculation over what a Trump administration means at both the domestic and international level.

At home, he has been hawkish on immigration and may try to deport millions of undocumented American residents. Outside the U.S., he has vowed to tear up trade agreements like NAFTA and impose tariffs on trade partners such as China.

On the environment, he has expressed skepticism about global warming and threatened to cancel the US commitment to the Paris Accord.

But what about terrorism? What can we expect from a Trump presidency on the international and U.S. “war on terrorism”?

Future policies are difficult to determine and much can change, although we can guess some of the incoming administration’s moves based on statements made and positions outlined during the campaign, even while recognizing that these are rife with inconsistency.

A few of Trump’s possible approaches will have a near-term positive effect on our collective battle against violent extremism, but on balance they will make things worse. Here are a few things to watch for:

  • On defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS), Trump vowed to go on the cyber offensive and recruit NATO to “invade IS strongholds in the Middle East and ‘knock the hell out of them’”. Assuming that he orders a more robust military response to the terrorist group, the effectiveness of that response will depend on the precise measures deployed. Special forces raids on identified high priority targets – think the successful killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011 – are the least likely to result in collateral damage or raise much objection. After that, it gets less easy. Drones are one tool, although the effect on innocent bystanders is probably higher than reported. Airstrikes are even less targeted. The worst scenario is a boots on the ground invasion as in the case of Iraq in 2003, which would give IS or others a new base of support (invasions tend to do that). In the short term, terrorist groups lose territory and influence but, in the longer term, the ideology underpinning these groups simply finds a new home. IS has already celebrated the Republican’s victory and stated that the “billionaire fool” will ruin the US and allow IS to take control of the country.
  • On allying with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Trump could leverage combined assets to speed up IS’ demise. The down side is that Russia is also targeting groups with which the US is allied. More importantly, Russia is trying to keep the Assads in power and a continued Alawite regime will invite more terrorist opposition down the road.
  • On immigration, Trump has vowed to stop the immigration of Muslims “until we figure out just what the hell is going on” and to refuse entry from countries associated with terrorist groups. He has also criticised any intake of Syrian refugees and would submit those who do come to “extreme vetting”. While this policy could prevent some terrorists from infiltrating the U.S., it does not cover those who come from otherwise “safe” countries such as France, Germany or the U.K.. It should be stressed, however, that the number of terrorists using the immigration/refugee system is dwarfed by the true “homegrown” threat of those born and radicalized to violence entirely in the U.S .(and for which there is no immigration or citizenship revocation “solution”). Furthermore, Trump has essentially made Muslims, including those born in the U.S., feel like unwanted citizens and this helps to feed the extremist narrative that the West hates Islam and does not allow Muslims to practice their religion freely (hence the call for hijrah to Muslim areas such as IS’ Caliphate).
  • Current U.S. President Barack Obama was big on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and even convened a summit on this issue in February 2015. It is highly unlikely that President Trump will have much time for CVE, seeing it as “wimpy”. This is unfortunate as CVE, while not a panacea, is an important part of counter terrorism strategy. Conversely, were the President to support CVE, it is hard to see how American Muslims buy into the administration’s efforts in light of Trump’s vilification of them.
  • On the domestic terrorism front, Trump has actually paved the way for an increase in the threat level, but not in a direction assumed by most Americans. The greatest terrorist menace in the U.S. comes not from Islamist extremists, whether foreign or domestic, but from a variety of right wing groups ranging from sovereign citizens to radical militias to white supremacists. The Trump campaign gave voice to these actors and it is likely that we will see a continued spike in the activity of such groups. It is ironic that a huge increase in the existence of these extremist organizations during the Obama years, as reported by the U.S. Southern Poverty Law Center, may be surpassed under a Trump administration. This, together with Trump’s avowed support for the Second Amendment and desire to protect gun rights, could make the U.S. a much less safe country. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan have already welcomed a Trump presidency and are likely to feel emboldened under his rule.

All in all, it is difficult to see any long-term pluses on counter-terrorism under President Trump. Initial successes against IS and others through military action will more than adequately be offset by his propensity to provide ammunition for future supporters and groups through his position on Islam and immigration.

The Trump presidency – whether one or two terms – will possibly leave us in a worse position vis-a-vis terrorism than the one we find ourselves in now.

Should he choose his advisors wisely and build on existing successful approaches, we may collectively be better off. And yet, a significant terrorist attack on U.S. soil attributed to a foreign actor – inspired, planned, directed or executed – would create a whole new set of variables and responses. Let us hope that such a scenario does not transpire.

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 the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary
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