How to determine the terrorist threat levels

Why terrorism threat levels rise in the days, weeks and months before an attack, not after. The risk level is determined by what we know, not what has just taken place. And what we know is usually determined in large part by intelligence.

On November 13, 2015 I was in France, Paris to be precise. If that date reminds you of something, let me refresh your memory. That was of course the day – or more accurately the evening – when a group of Islamist terrorists struck in the core of the country’s capital, attacking the national sports stadium and several cafes and restaurants resulting in 130 deaths and 430 injuries. These heinous acts still represent the largest terrorist attack in French history.

To be honest, I was not in Paris during the attacks. I had left that afternoon on a flight back to Canada after having toured WWI and WWII sites connected to the Canadian war effort over a period of two weeks. But had I still been there I am pretty sure I would not have scrambled to get the hell out of France in the immediate aftermath of the killings. You see, I am of the opinion that one of the safest places to be was in fact Paris the day after so much death and destruction.

One of the safest places to be was in fact Paris the day after so much death and destructionSound weird? Not really. Even if more plots and plans were afoot by other members of the terrorist cell responsible for the Friday night carnage, there were so many French police and military on the streets that I would have felt very, very secure.

This is probably counter-intuitive to most people but it also reflects an erroneous way of looking at risk. Terrorism threat levels rise in the days, weeks and months BEFORE an attack, not normally after. Furthermore, the risk level is determined by what we know, not what has just taken place. And what we know is usually determined in large part by intelligence.

Terrorist alert scale

When Canada, for example, sets its terrorist alert scale it does so based on what CSIS, the RCMP and others tell the government (the actual threat level is made by the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC), located within CSIS HQ but comprised of analysts from many different agencies). In other words, it is intelligence driven. It is not fear driven or influenced by public opinion. It is more systematic than that.

And yet as humans we project the past onto the future. Because something bad happened yesterday it is bound to happen tomorrow (or so we think). Of course emotions come into play and there are few things that elicit stronger emotions than terrorism. So we extrapolate. This explains in part why the Edmonton school board suspended all international school trips after the November 2015 attacks.

Luckily, saner heads sometimes prevail. Just last week Dutch police, thanks to some excellent work by the Netherlands security intelligence service – the AIVD – arrested seven men suspected of planning large scale attacks in the country. In the wake of the arrests, the head of the AIVD stated that the threat level remained unchanged. The Dutch have decided, correctly in my view, that in the absence of actual intelligence that other cells were active or on the verge of striking there is no need to raise the level, take special measures, and cause panic. What the Dutch threat assessment agency NCTV actually wrote on its Web site is worth citing at length:

  • The jihadist threat has evolved over the past few months, but the threat level for the Netherlands remains at ‘substantial’ (level 4 on a scale of 1 to 5)… There are two key reasons why the threat level has been kept at ‘substantial’. Firstly, there are international jihadist networks operating in the Netherlands, some with links to ISIS or al Qa’ida, which still intend to mount attacks in Europe. The second reason is that the Dutch jihadist movement continues to pose a violent threat.Adherents of the movement are involved in planning attacks, but so far this has not led to a concrete threat.

Our intelligence professionals did not lift the threat level in a knee-jerk way any more than the Dutch didFor the Dutch the assessed danger is already fairly high (‘substantial’): there is no need to make it higher at this time. By comparison, it is one level lower in Canada at medium (level 3 on a 5-point scale: “a terrorist attack could occur”). Interestingly, that level has not changed since October 2014, the month we saw two attacks in three days (resulting in two deaths in addition to the killing of the perpetrators). Our intelligence professionals did not lift the threat level in a knee-jerk way any more than the Dutch did.

A lot of thought and analysis goes into threat assessments. We should let the professionals do these calculations and not give into fear and irrationality. For if we do we allow the terrorists a kind of victory, no matter how small. And I don’t think we want to do that.

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