How science and counter terrorism have their parallels

When I was a kid I really wanted to be a scientist. It was not always clear what kind of scientist I wanted to be: anthropologist (early humans fascinated me), biologist, geologist, whatever.

I devoured any book on science I could get from the library, the first book I ever bought myself with my allowance was on anthropology, and my parents indulged my interest by buying me the How and Why series (they cost 59 cents an issue: that will tell you how old I am).

I have maintained my love for all things scientific into my fifties, reading accessible (and I am sure dumbed down) research on a daily basis.

I never did achieve that goal – high school physics, chemistry and calculus killed me. Nevertheless I have maintained my love for all things scientific into my fifties, reading accessible (and I am sure dumbed down) research on a daily basis. One of my go-to sources is the New York Times weekly insert of Science Times, which by the way celebrated its 40th anniversary last week.

This insert is chock full of one or two main stories and a whole bunch of smaller pieces, much akin to the British magazine New Scientist, which I have also been reading since the early 1980s.

As I read the 40th anniversary edition this weekend I was struck by how many parallels I saw with our efforts to understand and counter terrorism. None of the articles had anything overt to do with violent extremism, but in almost every one I found a fascinating tie to my take on terrorism.

Allow me to share some of these links.

Mental Illness

In a piece entitled “When will we solve mental illness?” there was a discussion on how despite centuries of study – both scientific and otherwise (Aristotle attributed it to ‘badness of spirit and early humans drilled holes in the skulls of living sufferers to ‘let the demons out’) – we are really no closer to an answer on what ’causes’ mental illness, let alone how to cure it.

This sentence is worth repeating in its entirety: “Despite billions of dollars in research funding, and thousands of journal articles, biological psychiatry has given doctors and patients little of practical value, never mind a cause or a cure.”

I could say the same for much of the research on why we have terrorism.

Alzheimer’s disease

Staying with the theme of explaining radicalization and terrorism, in an article on why we cannot cure Alzheimer’s disease by Reisa Sperling she wrote that while the theory that the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain is an important marker, it is still true that many patients with these plaques never progress to have Alzheimer’s. Dr. Sperling writes: “Why is there still no comprehensive understanding of what causes the disease or who is destined to develop it? The answer, you could say, is: “It’s complicated.

If there was ever a phrase to encapsulate what we know and what we don’t know about radicalization it has to be ‘it’s complicated.” I have lost track of how many times I have read or heard that people adopt extreme views and move on to violence because of (pick one or pick several): alienation, marginalisation, poverty, criminality, mental illness, discrimination… the list goes on and on.

And while some may, and I stress MAY, have some explanatory power, none give us THE answer.


In a piece on obesity, it was noted that those who are grossly overweight and go on radical diets, sometimes losing 100 lbs or more, put on all those pounds when they leave hospital.

The parallel here? All those de-radicalisation programs which probably have a high failure rate (which is not surprisingly not disclosed). I have said it before and I’ll repeat it here: the only guarantee that someone will not radicalise to violence is to somehow prevent the process from launching in the first place. Post facto efforts may work, they may not. There is simply no way to predict.


Lastly, a column entitled “Why Don’t We Have Vaccines Against Everything?”. Substitute “terrorism” for “everything” and you will see that the hopes of getting to a terrorism-free world are fantasy.

The point here is not to say that we need to stop our research efforts to better comprehend radicalisation and terrorism and come up with effective ways to deal with it. No, the purpose is rather multifold.

We have to accept that some things will probably never be deconstructed entirelyFirst, a scientific approach is the best one where data is collected and analysed and findings are subject to peer review. Secondly, like the scientific method, terrorism studies have to acknowledge that we will never, never arrive at THE solution, but merely a working hypothesis on what we think is going on at a point in time and we must acknowledge our own limitations. Thirdly, we have to accept that some things will probably never be deconstructed entirely.

So, by all means continue your research and share your results (NB I will address the availability to the public of that research in a forthcoming blog). But don’t pretend that your work is going to put aside our questions and our difficulties. Modesty is a virtue after all.


Is redirecting people away from online violent content a moonshot?

I suppose that the literal definition of a ‘moonshot’ is the act of sending a rocket to the moon. Interestingly, there is another set of metaphorical definitions I found online which include:

What then to make of a new project financed by the Canadian government to try to divert people from extremist content online by a UK firm called Moonshot? It is clearly not an attempt to land a craft on the moon but is it ‘ground-breaking’ and devoid of risks and benefits?

The project, which will receive $1.5 million (Canadian) from the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence (CCCEPVE), is called ‘Canada Redirect’ and aims at preventing potential extremists in Canada from accessing harmful online propaganda by presenting them with alternative websites, videos and audio when they enter certain search terms online. Moonshot CVE, based in London, claims that it is already using this approach in over a dozen countries.

What do I think of this idea?

NB I used to work for Public Safety Canada before the awfully named CCCEPEV was launched so I have some experience in this fieldI like it, in principle, with caveats. Any initiative that seeks to redirect the young (and not so young) and curious away from violent material has to be a good thing. Redirect Canada will “work with the logic of the internet and help to direct people who are looking for extremist content toward content that doesn’t necessarily contradict, but brings into question, what they’re looking for” according to the project director for Moonshot Micah Clark (full disclosure: he is a friend of mine).

There are, as always, limitations to what Moonshot is trying to achieve. There is a vast difference between the mildly adventurous and the committed extremist and I am doubtful the program will work for the latter (in fairness, Moonshot says it can differentiate between the two and will focus on the former). There are also probably privacy and freedom of expression issues (do extremists have the right to post material online and do citizens have the right to consume it? What is ‘extremism’ after all?). And then there is the evaluation aspect, i.e. how does Moonshot know that what it is doing is working and how does one measure how many individuals, if any, do not go down the pathway to violent extremism because Redirect eased them into a new direction? Actually, evaluation is the Holy Grail of all CVE and PVE projects and I have been assured that all those who seek and receive public funds to do this work have metrics at the top of their to-do lists.

There is a vast difference between the mildly adventurous and the committed extremist and I am doubtful the program will work for the latter


This approach is novel in that it moves away from what we have been doing – or trying to do is a better term – for years: remove content from the Internet and social media. This is a thankless task imposed on companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, sometimes with the threat of hefty fines in cases of non-compliance. Taking down material is fraught with difficulties: the aforementioned free speech issue, timeliness, and the fact that objectionable material is usually re-posted within minutes, resulting in a never ending game of Whack-a-Mole. At least Moonshot is not going down familiar, well-worn and yet not very efficient pathways.

Taking down material is fraught with difficulties: the free speech issue, timeliness, and the fact that material is usually re-posted within minutes, resulting in a never ending game of Whack-a-Mole.I have been called critical of anything that smacks of CVE or PVE. That is a bit unfair as I am trying to take a comprehensive look at what is being proposed, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and what challenges it will face. I also cannot shake off my intelligence and security hat – that is what 30+ years in the business will do to you. CSIS and its partners cannot and should not rely on any CVE or PVE effort to help determine risk level since any mistake or misdiagnosis that results in a successful terrorist attack reverberates back on government agencies, not on the organisations who ‘do’ CVE and PVE.

There is also the uncomfortable reality that spies and cops need to see who is reading and reacting to violent material online to help them understand the extremist environment and build possible court cases.

In the end as I noted above I like the idea and think it is an interesting concept. I look forward to hearing about its successes (and failures) but will wait before issuing any final evaluation. After all, the proof of the CVE pudding is in the eating.

No, mental health does not explain away terrorism

Last Friday (November 9), an ethnic Somali man drove to that city’s central business district with a bunch of gas cylinders turned to the open position (seeking one surmises to cause an explosion – unsuccessfully it thankfully turned out) and pulled out a knife, stabbing three men, killing a 74-year old restaurateur, Sisto Malaspina.

The terrorist was shot by police and later died in hospital. Within days of the incident all the ‘explanations’ came out, to wit:

  • he had led a troubled life;
  • he was delusional of late;
  • his life had ‘spun out of control’;
  • he was ‘agitated’;
  • he had been kicked out of the family home several times;
  • he had recently split up from his wife.
A police officer coming face-to-face with the terrorist on Bourke St.

Dead men tell no tales

As I have confessed on many, many occasions I am not a psychiatrist nor a mental health specialist so I have no reason to refute any of this. I will simply note, however, that as the terrorist is dead it is going to be very, very hard to confirm any of this. Dead men tell no tales as the old saying goes.

So, his mental health ‘issues’ notwithstanding, here is what else we know about the assailant:

  • He was known to have held radical views and had had his passport revoked in 2015;
  • He was known to Australian police and security agencies (my good friends at ASIO) for family ties and friends who held radical views;
  • He was likely ‘inspired’ by Islamic State (IS): although the terrorist group called him one of theirs there is no evidence to point to a link between the two;
  • He was on an ASIO national watch list.

OK, which one is it?

Was he an unfortunate delusional man or a dangerous terrorist who killed an innocent Australian? Why can’t he be both? Are the two mutually exclusive? Not in my books. Whatever problems the terrorist had, was he incapable of holding violent, extreme views (ASIO sure thought so)? Is it not possible for mental health and radicalization to co-occur? Of course it is.

We really have to stop this ‘either-or’ way of looking at terrorism. Some terrorists are cold, calculating murderers who meticulously plan their acts months or years in advance. Others are spur of the moment attackers. And there are a tonne of those somewhere in between. Furthermore, as I tried to point out in The Threat from Within, there is simply no profile to these individuals, and that includes their mental status. So stop saying there is one.

Coffee maker Sisto Malaspina has been identified as the murdered victim in Bourke Street’s terror attack

Social Responsibility

While I agree that many people can do more to identify those who pose a risk I think the PM was a little harshBefore signing off, there is another aspect to this case that I would like to weigh in on. Australian PM Scott Morrison dismissed the mental health angle and added that “Australian Muslims need to take greater responsibility in helping to uncover potential terrorists….here in Australia, we would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism in this country is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam.” He urged the Muslim community to be more “proactive” claiming some imams and community leaders will know who is “infiltrating” and radicalising members of their congregations. While I agree that many people, including our Muslim neighbours, can do more to identify those who pose a risk I think the PM was a little harsh.

Based on my experience in Canada, many Muslims, leaders and ordinary people, do step up to the plate when they notice someone radicalising to violence. They do call authorities, be they CSIS, the RCMP or the police. They do their civic duty to help keep us all safe. Others do not, for a whole host of reasons (none of which are justified in my books), but to call on the community to be more proactive ignores the good news side of this issue.

When all is said and done an innocent man is dead at the hands of someone who thinks IS is a role model. Enough said. RIP Sisto Malaspina.

When to call an act of mass violence terrorism?

Here we are, a few days after yet another mass shooting in the US, this one at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during a naming ceremony for a child.

A 46-year old named Robert Bowers sprayed bullets inside the faith centre, killing 11 and wounding 6, including 4 police officers who responded to the active shooter incident. The shooter was shot and injured as well. He thus survived his own attack where many others didn’t. I am of two minds on this: too bad he didn’t die so that we would have one less violent person to deal with, but the fact that he is alive means we may learn more about why he did what he did (we have some clues, which I will take up below).

I have no intention of wading into the gun debate because a) as a Canadian it is none of my business and b) it is pointless. That the US President thought it ok to merely suggest that had an armed guard been present fewer worshipers would have died is nothing less than disgusting. What kind of a society thinks that having guns on site at places of prayer is a better solution than limiting those guns in the first place? The US of course. Enough said.

Law enforcement officials run with a person on a stretcher at the scene of Saturday’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh

What, then, to make of this bloody attack?

In keeping with the common notion that any act that terrorises or seeks to terrorise is terrorismWas it an act of terrorism? For some it is, in keeping with the common notion that any act that terrorises or seeks to terrorise is terrorism. I have written about this a lot, as recently as this week with respect to the pipe bombs (as an aside, is it not telling that this other story got so much attention but disappeared as soon as the synagogue massacre happened?), so I will not repeat those arguments here.

From other perspectives (legal, definitional, etc.) it is far from clear that the shootings constitute terrorism. For the sake of brevity I will focus on two countries, Canada and the US, to see how complicated this can be. In my country, terrorist activity is a serious act of violence committed for ideological, political or religious reasons. In the US it is “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

A man lights a candle outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27

Where then does the Pittsburgh shooting fall? Is anyone being ‘coerced or intimidated’?

See also Finally some data about the mental health-terrorism linkAs I noted above, given that the shooter is still among us we may learn more about his motivation. We already have some clues thanks to his postings on the social media app Gab (full disclosure: I had no idea what Gab was and learned it is a ‘free speech’ haven for those kicked off platforms such as Twitter on account of their vile and hateful views). The shooter is an anti-Semitic creep and conspiracy theorist. Two hours before his rampage he posted this: “”HIAS (NB Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a non-profit that helps Jewish refugees relocate to the US) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Based on that alone we can conclude he hates Jews.

But is it enough to make this a terrorist attack? Is it a ‘political or social objective”? Maybe. In Canada his act would qualify at a minimum as a hate crime, analogous to the massacre at a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 (the perpetrator of that act has NOT been charged with terrorism to the best of my knowledge).  The US has already filed hate crime charges against the shooter. In the US I am not as qualified to comment and will leave the debate to those who know that country better than I do.

Police in the street of Quebec city in January 2017
When it comes to terrorism it is telling that Americans have skewed the dialogue towards Islamist extremism since 9/11 – no surprise there. And yet the phenomenon of what they call ‘domestic terrorism’ (a bad term to my mind: what is important is the underlying ideology, not where it happens) has been largely marginalised. This is indeed unfortunate as there are, according to many including the Southern Poverty Law Center, hundreds of right wing, neo-Nazi, Islamophobic, sovereign citizen and hate groups and individuals in the US which have carried out heinous acts of violence. To repeat: if the violence is motivated by ideology it should be labelled terrorism (I realise that defining ‘ideology’ is a challenge as well).

In the end, the shooter will get a very, very long prison sentence (he will not get executed as Pennsylvania’s governor suspended the death penalty in 2015). I am not so sure that agreeing to call it terrorism, or a hate crime, or a (another!) mass shooting really matters. What really matters is that 11 people are dead and 11 families are grieving. They deserve our support at this time.

Why intelligence services need access to your phone

How many of you recall the terrorist attack in San Bernardino back in December 2015? An Islamist terrorist couple went in to a California health sector office’s Christmas party and opened fire, killing 14 and wounding 22.

In the end, the FBI allegedly paid a hacker to get into the phone and allow the Bureau to continue their investigation anywayThe two were later killed in a hail of police gunfire, but that is where the controversy over the incident really started. In an attempt to find out the motivation behind the attack, US law enforcement tried to get into Syed Rizwan Farook’s cellphone only to find they could not as it was password protected. Authorities approached the phone’s manufacturer, Apple, for help only to be rebuffed.

The company said variably that it could not unlock the device or that by doing so it would set a dangerous precedent and undermine their users’ confidence in Apple’s ability to ensure privacy. In the end, the FBI allegedly paid a hacker to get into the phone and allow the Bureau to continue their investigation anyway.

Image: Police tape in front of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California

The issue has not gone away

At the time this debate was heated with strong positions on both sides. Those in favour of meeting the government’s request who thought Apple should comply said that terrorists – especially dead ones – have no expectations of privacy and that the FBI needed the phone’s data to see who else was involved in the plot and whether others were being planned. Those against said the State has no business asking for private information and that if Apple had complied nothing would be secure ever again from Big Brother’s prying eyes (and ears).

I saw both arguments and weighed in – cautiously – on giving the police access, albeit on very strict conditions.

Well, guess what? The issue has not gone away. In early September the US intelligence community, in conjunction with their ‘5 eyes’ partners (the ‘5 eyes’ is a group of nations that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US and is the world’s premier intelligence club), apparently ‘quietly warned’ technology firms that they will “demand lawful access to all encrypted emails, text messages and voice communications” and threatened to impose compliance if such assistance is not rendered.

The company said variably that it could not unlock the device or that by doing so it would set a dangerous precedent and undermine their users’ confidence in Apple’s ability to ensure privacy.

Wow, is that ever strong!

The community will ‘demand access’ and if denied will look into legislation to make sure they get what they want/need. Is this acceptable in a liberal democratic society (I assume police states and dictatorships have no compunction on making these threats)?

There are rules and procedures to follow and judges who deem certain cases too weak can turn them down (this does happen by the way)In a word, yes, with a caveat. My position has not changed since 2015 and I do think we can achieve security and privacy at the same time. Just as spies and cops cannot normally intercept communications of citizens without a court-approved warrant (SIGINT organizations like CSE do not get warrants but they also do not collect domestically) nor should they be able to demand access to encrypted domestic communications without one. If CSIS or the RCMP can make a case that an ongoing investigation into a serious threat can only go forward with access to data they cannot currently read, they can go before a Federal Court judge and make that case, much as they currently do for other intercept warrants. Who would be opposed to this? There are rules and procedures to follow and judges who deem certain cases too weak can turn them down (this does happen by the way).

Just as spies and cops cannot normally intercept communications of citizens without a court-approved warrant nor should they be able to demand access to encrypted domestic communications without one.

There is, of course, a downside to having to get a warrant

It presupposes that you already have begun an investigation into an individual or cell and already have enough info to make your case. You are asking for part of the puzzle you don’t have yet. It does not allow for ‘fishing expeditions’ into those who have not already crossed your radar (which was what transpired in San Bernardino, no?). In other words, even a warrant does not guarantee 100% security. As a free society we have to accept that. The alternative is unfettered and uncontrolled State access to everyone’s communications and I am fairly confident no Canadian (or Australian, or Brit or…) wants that.

We as a society have to decide what the balance is between giving our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies the tools they need and safeguarding the privacy and immunity from eavesdropping we crave. I happen to think we can achieve both through the courts – what say you?

Terrorists are not lonely, even in wolf form, and neither are counter terrorism practitioners

As a former practitioner in the security intelligence world I have, as do many others, a distinct bias. My understanding of many different social phenomena is informed and framed by the job I did and the particular kind of information I had access to for more than three decades: i.e. classified secrets. In light of that classification it should surprise no one that data of this type is closely guarded and not generally available to the public. I was privileged.

This matters on some occasions and perhaps no more importantly than in terrorism studies. What was once a niche area of inquiry has now become a booming industry (maybe ‘boom’ is not a great word when talking about terrorism!), especially in the post 9/11 world. Whole new journals have sprung up, universities have added programs, and thousands of people have migrated to terrorism studies as a field of interest. As with all things this is a mixed blessing. Some new scholars are wonderful, some not so. The subject matter suffers greatly, as those immersed in it rightly acknowledge, from a lack of good data. Whence this lack? See above note on secrecy. That is why.

Nevertheless, despite this challenge a lot of wonderful work has been carried out and when I was still “on the inside” I tried my best to keep up on this academic area. Now that I am out I’d be doing the same if it were not for the damn paywalls constructed by just about every terrorism journal. Hint, hint to the scholarly community – do a Reagan-to-Gorbachov and “tear down this wall!”

Now that I am out I’d be doing the same if it were not for the damn paywalls constructed by just about every terrorism journal.


Think about it. If a person is truly that isolated and communicates with no one, how can agencies like CSIS and the RCMP even find them, let alone investigate and stop them from carrying out acts of violence?I was reminded of this tension between practitioners and academics the other day when I gained access to a paper by UNB professor David Hofmann (thanks for sharing it David!). Entitled ‘How “Alone” are Lone-Actors? Exploring the Ideological, Signaling, and Support Networks of Lone-Actor Terrorists’ the paper is a good one in addressing an important myth in society, i.e. that so-called ‘lone wolf terrorists’ are truly single actors that are all but unstoppable. Think about it. If a person is truly that isolated and communicates with no one, how can agencies like CSIS and the RCMP even find them, let alone investigate and stop them from carrying out acts of violence?

In truth, those of us on the inside never bought into the lone wolf theory anyway. Thousands of investigations had told us a lot about radicalisation and terrorism and we knew that ‘no man is an island’. We knew that no one radicalised in a vacuum and that there are ALWAYS opportunities to find and watch these terrorists. That some succeed – one of the two case studies Dr. Hofmann discusses is Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Canadian terrorist that killed Nathan Cirillo at the National Cenotaph in Ottawa on October 22, 2014 and unsuccessfully stormed Parliament a few minutes later- is not proof that some people are ‘uninvestigatable’ due to their solitude but rather a consequence of finite resources. Zehaf-Bibeau had crossed tripwires: there was simply too much else to look at at the time.

2014 shootings at Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada.

What about the outsiders?

In fairness to Dr. Hofmann his ‘policy recommendations’ are solid but they are also unnecessary as everything he advises is already being done, in keeping with the aforementioned resource allocation and availability. Then again, as an ‘outsider’ he would have no way of knowing that, would he?

Sharing can only enhance the understanding of both partiesThis is the crux of the matter. Academics seldom, if ever, gain access to what those of us ‘in the business’ know or what we are doing about it. While secrecy considerations will always be an issue security intelligence professionals have to do a much better job of communicating, within obvious limits, what we have learned. Sharing can only enhance the understanding of both parties: it is certainly something I am trying to do as an ex-spy, although I realise better than most that I have a shelf life and every day I spend outside the security intelligence community weakens my insight into what is going on in today’s terrorism world.

While secrecy considerations will always be an issue security intelligence professionals have to do a much better job of communicating, within obvious limits, what we have learned.

I’d like to end by giving recommendations of my own, at the risk of sounding arrogant. I know that terrorism studies especially have this perceived need to be ‘policy relevant’ (do other fields have the same outlook?). The gaining of knowledge does not seem to suffice here. So, a word of caution to academics. Given that you will never have a full idea of what is happening in the lives of practitioners, phrase your recommendations carefully. No one wants to be told what to do, particularly by well-intentioned but by design not fully informed outsiders. By all means continue your excellent scholarship but add in a dose of humility. Heaven knows that humility is a required trait in the intelligence world even if it is not always so overt. When you chase terrorists for a living your reputation is good only until your next failure. By the way, oh dear ex-colleagues of mine at CSIS, that bears remembering.

In the meantime let’s continue to strengthen the practitioner/policy wonk-academic bond. We have a lot to teach each other.

How to determine the terrorist threat levels

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.

Terrorism was down in 2017. That’s good right? Yes, but…

A very interesting report was just issued by the START center of excellence on terrorism at the University of Maryland on violent extremist trends in 2017. It is worth a read. Here are some good news highlights:
  • The total number of terrorist attacks worldwide in 2017 decreased by 23% and total deaths due to terrorist attacks decreased by 27%, compared to 2016.
  • Islamic State (IS) was responsible for more attacks and deaths than any other perpetrator group in 2017. However, ISIS carried out 23% fewer terrorist attacks and caused 53% fewer total deaths, compared to 2016.
  • The number of kidnapping victims and hostages declined 43% between 2016 and 2017.
  • Of the 18,753 people killed in terrorist attacks in 2017, 4 430 (24%) were perpetrators of the attacks – that means we have 4,430 fewer to worry about.
So three cheers for the war on terrorism! Hip, hip… Wait just a second! Now for the not so good news:
  • On average, there were 715 terrorist attacks, causing 1,563 deaths, injuring 1,623 people, and involving 745 hostages or kidnap victims per month, worldwide in 2017. That is an average of 25 attacks a day.
  • In 2017, a total of 8,584 terrorist attacks occurred worldwide, resulting in more than 18,700 deaths and more than 19,400 people injured. That is far too many people.
  • 59% of all attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Philippines), and 70% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria). These countries are really struggling with the whole terrorist threat.
Hmm, what does all this mean? Simple. No matter what anyone tells you – president, king, army general, terrorism expert, your local barista – terrorism has not gone away. In saying this I am not ignoring all the great work carried out at multiple levels: military, security and law enforcement, religious leaders, community activists, etc. But we still would be wise to keep a few things in mind:
  • Afghanistan and Iraq are very, very unstable countries which are disproportionately haunted by terrorism. Both happen to have also suffered from multiple invasions and occupations (Afghanistan saw the Soviets then the US and its alliance move in while Iraq was stupidly invaded by the Bush administration back in 2003). This should give EVERYONE pause when they muse about future military action. Wars solve little. They certainly do NOT solve terrorism.
  • Far too many people still die or are horribly wounded in terrorist attacks. Even if the numbers are down.
  • Yes, the trend lines are falling since the disastrous spike in 2014. But there was another spike, only a bit less ghastly, in 2015 and 2016 and we would be foolish to not prime ourselves for more spikes in the years to come.

What then should be the main takeaway from this data and this analysis? A few things come to mind:

  • START should be commended for the work it is doing. It is data driven and not theoretical and although there are inevitable gaps in its work, as START acknowledges in its introduction, it is still probably the best we have.
  • Terrorism is a complicated beast. Groups form, rise, fall, merge, re-rise, re-fall and adapt. As a senior US counter terrorism official recently stated: “ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliates have proven to be determined, resilient and adaptable”. Duh.
  • There is no easy answer to all of this and confronting terrorism (I almost wrote ‘battling’ but I realised it sounded too military and I am trying to avoid those kinds of metaphors) is multi-level. We need to do a lot more further ‘left of boom’ to stop terrorist creation in its tracks. I am not sure we are there yet, again despite some great works in many nations.

Looking forward

You will see more terrorism in 2018 and 2019 and 2020 and 2021You know what really worries me at the end of the day? That some in positions of authority will read this report, focus on the ‘progress’ we’ve made, and decide that we either continue business as usual (i.e. that damn military approach) or start to lift our foot from the gas pedal – “See, we’re winning so let’s look at something else to do – squirrel!”. Either response is bad.

You will see more terrorism in 2018 and 2019 and 2020 and 2021… You will see groups form you have never heard of. You will see countries beset by terrorism you never would have considered. You will see more terrorist plots – hopefully foiled ones – in your country. Sorry to be in your face, but this is reality.

To finish off on a happy note, I suppose we should celebrate the positives outlined in the START report. I’d like to start (no pun intended) by raising a glass and commend our collective efforts. But in keeping with the point I am trying to make here, I’d like to do it in a Canadian way: quietly, understatedly and with the knowledge we are not out of the terrorist woods yet. Please join me in a whispered hip, hip, hooray.

Isn’t propaganda great? But it can be misleading!

Branding is important. Companies spend tens of millions on advertising campaigns to get people to recognise them and buy their products.

Even as a one-man band, I know how crucial it is to get the name of my consulting firm, Borealis, out there so that potential clients find out about me, what I can provide and why they should engage me. It is also why I hired someone to design my cool logo (you can see it on my homepage

These and other groups invest a lot of time and effort into their media arms to keep their brands in the public domain and remind us that they are still here and still lethalIt should be noted that branding is important for terrorist groups too. When we think of an organisation like Al Qaeda (AQ), we think of Usama bin Laden and 9/11 and the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. When we think of Islamic State (IS) we think of the Caliphate, barbarity and thousands of Western foreign fighters. These and other groups invest a lot of time and effort into their media arms to keep their brands in the public domain and remind us that they are still here and still lethal.

What, then, should we do with a claim of responsibility that is most likely false? IS just stated that the July 22 shootings in Toronto were “the most successful foreign operation of the year”. To jog your memory, on that date Faisal Hussain killed two people, wounded 15 others and later killed himself. To date the police are not treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

This has not stopped IS from doing so. There are problems with its statement, however. It got the date wrong as well as the number of casualties. There is absolutely no indication that Hussain was IS or affiliated to IS or inspired by IS or knew what IS is or could even spell IS even if given the first two letters. Based on this, my analytical past tells me that the attack was most probably NOT an IS operation (never say never but…).


Besides, no disrespect intended towards the victims but since when are two deaths ”the most successful foreign operation”? Have IS’ standards fallen that much? Not exactly on par with 9/11, is it?

Interestingly, according to a National Post article by Adrian Humphreys, IS only said it was behind the carnage AFTER speculation was raised in several Western media (based, by the way, on little to nothing at the time but why wait for the facts before writing something?). Kinda like putting the terrorist cart before the jihadi horse.

IS is not what it was as recently as two years ago, even if pronouncing its death is premature in a Mark Twainian kinda wayIf you are IS though, it makes a lot of sense to claim as much as you can. After all, your group has had a hard time of it lately, what with the vast loss of territory, the deaths of tens of thousands of your ‘holy warriors ‘ and universal condemnation for your tactics. IS is not what it was as recently as two years ago, even if pronouncing its death is premature in a Mark Twainian kinda way.

What is important here is how we react to news of this type. What we need to do is demand proof, or at least, more information than a news release by IS or any other terrorist entity. We cannot assume that just because the shooter was a Muslim means that he was IS, or AQ, or any other terrorist (although I should not have to say this, very, very, very few Muslims are terrorists: yes some are, but we cannot jump to the conclusion that all are).

Expect more of these kinds of statements to come out from IS. As many have said there is no such thing as bad publicity. IS gets a freebie when it pulls off stunts like this. What we should not do is give them credit where it does not belong.

Terrorism and citizenship

For the average person citizenship is determined by the particular country in which you were born. There are, however, exceptions. Some nations recognise anyone born on their soil – so-called jus soli –  so that if a woman gives birth while in transit on a flight that child can receive that country’s citizenship. Others do not.

During the recent Conservative convention in Halifax, a resolution was passed calling for the government to stop granting citizenship to anyone born on Canadian soil but instead to require at least one parent to be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. The motion was spurred by a belief that pregnant non-Canadian women were flying to Canada for the sole purpose of giving birth, although there are no indications that this is a significant problem in our country. The Conservative position has already led to reactions that it is not necessary.

Two cases in our country have arisen that lead to interesting dilemmasTwo cases in our country have arisen that lead to interesting dilemmas. In the first, two children born in Canada to Russians here illegally as spies were at once seen as citizens. The Supreme Court is currently weighing in on a lower court decision that removed their citizenship. I imagine that most Canadians would not want to see the offspring of Russian spies receive the privileges our country has to offer, even if the fact they were born here was not their ‘fault’.

So what about terrorists?

The Harper government tried to enact legislation that would strip those convicted of terrorist offences in Canada of their citizenship. The case of Zakaria Amara, one of the leaders of the 2005-6 Toronto 18 terrorist cell, was the test case.  His citizenship was revoked but re-granted after the Liberals took power.

Like the case of the children of the Russian ‘illegals’ I would wager that most Canadians would have little to no problem with taking away the benefit of being one of us from someone who sought to blow us up. If an immigrant to whom we granted citizenship goes and becomes a terrorist and plans to kill his fellow Canadians, does he deserve to be one of us? Great question.

There are limitations on when a state can take citizenship away: no state should render a person stateless.There are of course limitations on when a state can take citizenship away. No state can – or rather no state should – render a person stateless. Hence an individual with status in only one country can not have that status taken away: that act can only be applied to those who can fall back on a secondary citizenship. Mr. Amara had dual Jordanian-Canadian citizenship and had temporarily lost the latter.

As I argued in Western Foreign Fighters, however, the decision to take away citizenship does not solve one significant issue: those who come to our land as children and become terrorists (note that I wrote ‘become’ and not ‘were born as’) do so within our society. In other words, the process of radicalisation occurs here, not elsewhere. Even if we were to remove such people who pose a threat to us through their terrorist plots by stripping them of their Canadian citizenship and deporting them, this does little to disrupt the incidence of radicalisation here (aside of course from removing one radicalising influence who can affect others).


A Canadian problem?

This is an important detail. Contrary to public wisdom, radicalisation to violence is a Canadian problem: it does not appear on our shores via the immigration system. We thus have to learn to deal with it and the government has started a new centre to help coordinate those efforts.

I fully understand the anger that Canadians feel towards those of us who choose to embrace terrorism (note that I wrote ‘chose’ and not ‘were duped into’): I share that anger. Perhaps steps to yank citizenship will act as a deterrent for others: perhaps not (I lean towards the latter). Which ever way the government goes it does not eliminate the need to develop a better understanding of why Canadians radicalize to violence and either travel abroad to join terrorist groups or plan acts here. And ways to prevent it or at least mitigate its effects.

One thing we cannot do is deport our way out of this problem.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 3, 2018.

Does the fear of terrorism outweigh the actual threat level?

So what are YOU afraid of? Snakes? Sharks? Public speaking? For me it is heights. I have a hard time even climbing a ladder to clean out the eavestroughs at home. Seriously, a metre off the ground and I get weak in the knees. Yeah, I know, what a wimp!

What about terrorism? Does it freak you out? Well, it certainly does that to a lot of people. It consistently ranks high on lists of what people worry about. The problem is that this fear is wildly disproportionate to the actual incidence of terrorism, depending of course on where you live. If you are a citizen of Iraq or Somalia or Afghanistan you have a justifiable reason to be constantly on edge since in those countries terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence and/or possibility. Whether crossing the street, lining up at a government office or having a coffee in a public square you are potentially exposed to a very real chance of dying in a suicide bombing, an IED or a vehicular attack so it is not hard to see why you would be nervous.

As many have pointed out, more people drown in bathtubs every year than die in terrorist attacks in North AmericaThe same cannot be said for us here in Canada and, to a similar extent, in the US (Europe is a different story but even there Europeans should not be as afraid as Iraqis or Somalis). In the post 9/11 period, 100 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on US soil, and half of that number succumbed to the Orlando night club Islamist extremist. In Canada, the total is two (you read that right: two) unless you count the six who died in a mosque shooting in January 2017, although the suspect has not been charged with terrorism under Canadian law.

Whether it is 100 or 2 (or 8), that is a very small number indeed over almost two decades. As many have pointed out, more people drown in bathtubs every year than die in terrorist attacks in North America.

That comparison is both useful and useless, however. Useful in the sense that it helps to give us perspective on the scale of the problem we face: i.e. terrorist deaths are a statistical blip. Useless in that it does not take into consideration the fact that there is a large corollary effect of terrorism that does not exist for bathtub drownings. Allow me to elucidate.


Bathtub drownings

Bathtub drownings are tragic accidents (usually, unless we are talking about an episode of Midsomer Murders!): terrorist attacks are deliberate acts. Bathtub drownings rarely involve more than one person: terrorist attacks can kill dozens, hundreds or even thousands as we saw on 9/11. Bathtub drownings do not have any message other than ‘don’t fall asleep while bathing’ or ‘keep the radio away from the lip of the tub!’: terrorist attacks are chock full of messages – in fact violent acts that do not send a message are not terrorist in nature. Bathtub drownings never (seldom?) make the front page: terrorist attacks always (usually?) do.

Bathtub drownings never make the front page: terrorist attacks always do.It is thus clear why we worry more about terrorist attacks than we do about bathtub drownings. The latter, though tragic, do not have wider societal effects. The former do, in terms of budgets, military actions (drone strikes, invasions and occupations) and the negative repercussions across society (distrust, animosity, fear of the Other, etc.).

There is one similarity between bathtub drownings and terrorist attacks though and that has to do with preventability. It is not clear what can be done to decrease the number of bodies found floating in a shallow pool of water – aside from watch your toddler in the tub – and equally not clear how to prevent terrorism. Yes, we pay our security and intelligence agencies oodles of money to detect and deter, and we are throwing gazillions of dollars at CVE, PVE, PRV and a whole alphabet of prevention programmes, but can we really put a dent in those who radicalize to violence and execute terrorist acts? Great question: I am a healthy skeptic on the efficacy of what we are doing (a theme I go into a great deal on in my book ‘An end to the war on terrorism’ that is coming out this month).

In the end fear is often irrational and it is far from obvious what we can do to address it. Some people will just be afraid of things that really pose a limited threat to them. Like terrorism if you are a Canadian. We need to be cognizant of the actual threat and still try to put it in perspective. But then again that is why fear works: it is not often subject to perspectivisation (is that even a word?). So, yes we will continue to over-emphasize the threat terrorism poses but that is ok, unless it leads to counterproductive or disastrous results (like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq).

It is those mistakes, driven by fear (and bad intelligence) that we must guard against.

How much airport security is too much?

Is there any less desirable way to travel these days than by air? Long lineups everywhere, intrusive searches, the delicate dance of holding up your pants while shuffling (since you have to remove your belt before you pass through the scanner), trying to figure out what 100 ml of liquid is, etc., etc., etc..

The glory days of airline flights these are not. To make matters worse, the drudgery does not end once you get to your destination. The BBC reported today that those who arrive at Heathrow are waiting as long as two and a half hours at passport control. Yikes!

A successful attack kills many people all at once, the act gets massive media coverage and the industry, and by extension the economy, takes a hit.Why has a formerly pleasant way to get from A to B become so tortuous? In a word: terrorism. Whether we are talking about the downing of Air India flight 182 in 1985 by Canadian Sikh extremists, or 9/11, or the liquids plot, or the Shoebomber, or the Underwear bomber or… it is obvious that aircraft remain top priorities for terrorists. The reasons for this are not complicated: a successful attack kills many people all at once, the act gets massive media coverage and the industry, and by extension the economy, takes a hit. Terrorists clearly know this.

Are we getting security at airports right?

Even if we acknowledge that airplanes remain viable and lucrative targets, are we getting security at airports right? Are we striking a balance between threat level and disruption to people’s travel plans?

Well, if you are Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail, the answer is clearly no. He wrote last weekend that what we are forced to endure at security checkpoints amounts to “wasted time, annoyance and gigantic cost”, adding that “We lavish far too much money and attention on preventing dramatic rare events, far too little on fighting everyday blights. The airport security lineup may the most visible example of this unfortunate tendency.

The simple fact is that even if there has yet to be a single fatality by a hijacker since 9/11, that has not stopped attempts such as those cited above.Mr. Gee is generous with his criticism (why, he asks, are a 70-year old couple subject to this ridiculous procedure) but short on solutions. He rightly cites statistics that airline attacks are rare and acknowledges that some measures (securing the cockpit for example) make sense. Overall, however, he calls into question what is done, how it is done, to whom it is done and what all this costs the taxpayer/traveler. Good questions, but…

The simple fact is that even if there has yet to be a single fatality by a hijacker since 9/11 (even though several planes were brought down via bombs placed in the cargo hold), that has not stopped attempts such as those cited above. As already noted, terrorists would like nothing more than to get one of their own onto a plane and bring it down. I am fairly certain that security intelligence agencies such as the one I worked for (CSIS) come across information on a constant basis related to plots or ideas for plots. Each one has to be investigated and although many are probably no more than aspirational in nature, I am fairly certain that others are foiled, even if we never hear about them.

The victims of this new reality.png

The victims of this new reality

As for the poor 70-year old man and woman, they are the victims of this new reality. If CATSA and their like were to focus solely on ‘brown people’ or men with beards for secondary inspection can you imagine the outcry? Can you spell ‘racial profiling’? Besides, there is no profile for terrorists anyway, regardless of what the ‘experts’ tell you.

Imagine a contrary scenario. What if, after constant, shrill public protest, an airport authority decided to stop executing a particular type of security screening and an attack took place that could have been prevented had that screening been applied? What would people say in that case? “It’s ok, at least the victims did not have to go through an onerous search before they died”. I think not.

So no, Mr. Gee, we are not going to get less security. We may even get more, as hard as that may be to believe. Terrorism and airliners go together like Canadians and hockey. We had better get used to that. Yes, we can always carry out security screening better and more efficiently. But we cannot stop doing it.