Contrary to accepted wisdom, terrorism CAN be detected early enough to prevent

A recent FBI study on active shooters has concluded solidly that ”In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence”.

In the wake of an attack, whether it be terrorist in nature or a mass shooting, stabbing or vehicle ramming incident, we often read comments and statements such as the following:
  • no one saw this coming;
  • it was completely unpredictable (and by extension unpreventable);
  • who would have thought THAT person would have done such a thing;
  • there is no way to prevent future events like this from happening.

All of these are untrue as I hope to convince you in this piece but let us examine why people say such things.All of these are untrue as I hope to convince you in this piece but let us examine why people say such things. We want to believe that no one is truly at fault (unless we want to blame someone we don’t like: CSIS, the RCMP, the police), we don’t want to admit that we could have done something to prevent these violent acts, we truly are convinced that there are things in this world that defy classification, etc.

If we really think that some crimes are ‘bolts from the blue’ we are curiously satisfied that as nothing could have been done to make a difference we don’t have to worry about. ‘Stuff’ happens. We move on.


The opposite is closer to the truth

The opposite is closer to the truth

And yet studies are coming out that the opposite is closer to the truth. Even though those who engage in violence do not fit any kind of demographic (age, occupation, employment, mental status, relationship status and so on) they all tend to engage in behaviors that should tell those closest to them (partners, family, friends, workmates…) something is amiss. These signs are out there for inspection and we have to actually choose to ignore them.

”In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence” A recent FBI study on active shooters brought this idea to the fore.  A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 has concluded solidly that ”In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence. While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and — if recognized and reported — may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.

This study is well researched, methodologically sound as far as I can determine and worth reading as it should put to bed the notion that these events, of which there are far too many in the US (from 2000-2013, 160 of which 63 were subject to study for indicators), ”come out of nowhere”.


41 of respondents told pollsters that they believe there are radicalized individuals living in their communities today

Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism: Four-in-ten respondents say radicalized individuals live in their communities

”They live in our communities”

The release of this paper came on the heels of an Angus Reid opinion poll in Canada on radicalization and homegrown terrorism in which 41% of respondents told pollsters that they “believe there are radicalized individuals living in their communities today.

41% of respondents believe there are radicalized individuals living in their communities today It is unclear why 2 in 5 Canadians feel this way: perhaps they are affected by what they see on the news in other countries since terrorism is a rare beast in ours or perhaps they have deep biases against those populations they think house (or encourage) radicalization. Nevertheless, this is a significant percentage of Canadians.

Comparing this poll and the FBI study is a little like comparing apples and oranges: the former is a set of opinions while the latter is a scientific analysis but there is much here that is similar. If two-fifths of us think we have a problem with radicalization and potential terrorism that suggests, admittedly weakly, that people have seen radicalization in their communities at some point. If true, there must be some series of attitudes or behaviours that lead those people to conclude that they are consistent with radicalization.


Minority Report.png

Early detection of potential problems

Just as the FBI, our security folks have discovered patterns where many had said none existIn fact, there are overt, observable behaviours all the time. I worked on these at CSIS almost 15 years ago and wrote many, many (classified) papers on the subject: some of that work was broadly reflected in my 2015 book The Threat from Within. My old CSIS friends have moved on to do a follow-up analysis of mobilization to violence indicators, a small summary of which they made public recently. So, just as the FBI, our security folks have discovered patterns where many had said none exist.

These findings are wonderful news. They take the imponderable and unpredictable and make it less scary. They put tools into the hands of people in a position to effect early detection of potential problems, although all these studies caution that their conclusions are descriptive and not prescriptive. Still, knowing what to look for sure beats not knowing even if there is no one-to-one mapping between behavior and action.

There remains however the challenge of whether or not observers elect to report what they see: the FBI noted that “well-meaning bystanders…may even resist taking action to report for fear of erroneously labeling a friend or family member as a potential killer.” You can lead a horse to water…

We should commend our protectors with sharing their research with us. They know a lot more about violent extremism than anybody else does and we should heed their advice. The ball is now in our court.

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