How to prevent vehicular terrorist attacks – maybe

We read of them often – last week’s incident in London near the Parliament buildings in just the latest. Over the past five years or so there have been at least 20 such events, most of them terrorist in nature, that have caused hundreds of deaths (the 2016 attack in Nice was by far the most lethal with 86 dead) and thousands of injuries.

Once investigations begin we learn that those behind these heinous attacks come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are known to the security services, others not. Some fooled authorities into thinking they no longer posed a threat (Martin Couture-Rouleau in Montreal in 2014). Others may have had ties to terrorist groups like Islamic State. In some cases IS claims the drivers as ‘soldiers’ of Islam irrespective of such links. One thing is certainly true: there is no profile.

These attacks often happen out of the blue.These attacks often happen out of the blue. A vehicle – car, van, large truck – appears out of nowhere, targeting crowds of people on a busy Toronto street, or one in Stockholm, along Las Ramblas in Barcelona or on the iconic London Bridge. The only common denominator seems to be innocent men, women and children out enjoying a nice day or commuting to work. Lives are lost, lives are shattered.

Officials struggle to come up with responses. In a perfect world, our protectors would have intelligence on those planning such acts and would take action to stop them. In light of those successful attacks it is clear this is not always the case.


A French police officer watching for road traffic infringements in Paris
A French police officer watching for road traffic infringements in Paris

What can we do?

In the absence of intelligence or forewarning some authorities decide to put up barriers. During festivals or parades dump trucks, often filled with cement, will be posted at certain intersections to prevent the entry of a terrorist bent on destruction. These measures are of course temporary.  Other countries have elected to put in place concrete bollards or barriers – or planters if they want a better and more aesthetic look – that remain as an obstacle on a more permanent basis. Structures of this sort appear to have inhibited London’s terrorist last week. They can be ugly, however, and infringe the freedom of movement of the vast majority who do not have violent intentions.

This involves installing a system in select areas that can act to slow down or stop a vehicle perceived to be speeding up in the neighbourhood of pedestriansOne possible solution is purely technological in nature. This involves installing a system in select areas that can act to slow down or stop a vehicle perceived to be speeding up in the neighbourhood of pedestrians. Would-be extremists find that their cars or vans are incapacitated, thus frustrating their designs.  This capability is already real and can serve other purposes such as stopping vehicles involved in high speed car chases.

There are of course problems with the ability to disable a car at the flick of a switch. I imagine that the system required to monitor potential bad guys would be enormously expensive. Who decides which areas should be monitored (once identified the terrorists could just move over a block)? Do we want to place this capability in the hands of police? Does it not smack of Big Brother? Even if it worked 100% of the time, a determined terrorist would be careful to bring along a knife or gun to continue his plot once his vehicle quit (yes, a guy with a knife cannot do as much damage as a guy with a car but he can still kill and wound).  This is exactly what happened to Lee Rigby in Woolich in 2013.


Sidewalk Toronto
Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a new kind of mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the creation of Quayside.

Cities of the future

Maybe when we get to the cities of the future, like the plans for parts of downtown Toronto (the Sidewalk Labs project), this will all be old hat. Many seem to be ok with ever intrusive peering into our activities that they will accept that cars will be stopped if someone in authority thinks they are driven by homicidal maniacs. Then again, perhaps the backlash over FaceBook and private data will create an opposition movement to all this.

What we have to accept is that, irrespective of the technology we develop, getting to zero terrorism is a pipe dream. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome all efforts to get the tally of successful attacks as close to nil as possible. It is just that a very determined violent actor will usually find a way. We might want to get used to that.
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Terrorism in Africa 20 years after the Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings

Shortly after I joined CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) in January 2001 I attended a presentation by a friend who was working at the Canadian embassy in Kenya in the late 1990s.

He related that he was at home on August 7, 1998 when a massive blast took him and a colleague off their feet and threw them across the room. Once he recovered he rushed to the embassy only to learn that a massive truck bomb had just gone off outside the US embassy in Nairobi.

My friend is still haunted by the images he saw of the dead and wounded in NairobiAlmost simultaneously, some 860 km away a second bomb exploded near the American offices in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. In all, 224 people were killed in the two attacks and nearly 4,000 injured. My friend is still haunted by the images he saw of the dead and wounded in Nairobi.

When the dust had cleared it turned out that a group named Al Qaeda had claimed both incidents. For many, the immediate response was ‘Al who?’ AQ was not a household name in 1998, certainly not the notorious terrorist organisation it became a little more than 3 years later on 9/11. The bombings were catastrophic and presaged the much higher casualty count in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on a September morning in 2001.

So here we are, 20 years later. We tend to associate significance to anniversaries and in that light I’d like to weigh in on terrorism in Africa today. Are things any better? Any worse? Who are the main actors? How large is the threat to the continent? Let’s look at what is happening across Africa.


Several buildings came tumbling down following the blast

Situation report

Of course Africa is a large continent with many nations, peoples, ethnicities, languages, etc. and it is not possible to do any analysis of terrorism justice in a blog post. And yet, even a cursory glance of events in the very recent past, up to incidents that have occurred in the last week, show quite clearly, at least to my mind, that terrorism is alive and well and not giving any signs of disappearing from Africa any time soon. Here is a whirlwind tour of that part of the world:

There is a longstanding terrorism campaign by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria (although the terrorists have struck neighboring countries as well) that the government (erroneously?) says is on its last legs. Just today 7 villagers were killed in a raid in Nigeria’s Borno State.
Much of the Sahel (the area bordering the Sahara) is beset with a variety of Islamist extremist groups. On June 29 the AQ-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims claimed an attack on the military HQ of a Sahel anti-terrorism force known as the G5.
In Somalia, Al Shabaab and a smaller group which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) are active on a daily basis in spite of US airstrikes and an African Union military presence (AMISOM). Yesterday Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Mogadishu that killed at least 4 people. Attacks are also frequent in northeastern Kenya (the April 2015 Garissa University siege that killed 147 is probably the most famous).
An Anglophone separatist movement in Cameroon is taking on the characteristics of a terrorist campaign. Militants seeking an independent ‘Ambazonia’ attacked a Defence Minister’s convoy on July 14, wounding 4 soldiers.
Egypt is dealing with an IS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula that has killed hundreds, including Coptic Christians. The Egyptian military says it killed 52 terrorists in the region in recent days.
Much of Libya is still ungovernable since the death of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi in 2001. In May IS-linked terrorists killed 14 in an attack on the Libyan elections commission.
There have also been extremely violent incidents in Central African Republic (CAR), Uganda, and Burundi, not to mention the tragic situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the latter is probably not strictly always terrorism but has nevertheless exacted a huge death toll.

Vehicles of Egyptian Army and police special forces are seen in the troubled northern part of the Sinai peninsula during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Al Arish, Egypt

A priority?

Africa is still beset with other pressing issues – the economy, jobs, schools, drought, etc. – that it is far from clear what priority fighting terrorism should getIt should be self-evident that Africa is wracked with terrorism, and in many of these countries solutions are not forthcoming, no matter how often governments say the end is nigh (this is particularly egregious in Nigeria and less so in Somalia).

How to deal with terrorism, beyond a purely military response, is not obvious. Africa is still beset with other pressing issues – the economy, jobs, schools, drought, etc. – that it is far from clear what priority fighting terrorism should get.

I don’t like to be pessimistic but I can’t say I see a lot of hope on the horizon for Africa when it comes to terrorism. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong.

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

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.

An uneventful G7 – from a security standpoint

Well, the G7 in La Malbaie, Quebec, is over and some would say ‘Thank God!’ It would be hard to imagine a weirder summit than the one Canada just hosted. The group of seven powerful economic and political nations usually gathers to talk shop, take some selfies, and sign a final communique that is or is not significant.

What fascinates me is what did not happen in Quebec – i.e. there were no major security incidentsThink what you may about these kinds of high-level meetings, they do usually serve at the least as a forum for like-minded leaders to discuss important issues and make decisions that in time will help resolve such issues. This year’s confab will be remembered solely for the bizarre, albeit not unexpected, performance by the US President who single-handedly undermined the conference and had many talking about whether it was indeed a G7 gathering or a G6 vs G1 conflict.

I am not interested in what the American President did or didn’t do last weekend: it is out of my disdain for that man that I have explicitly told my family that our cottage in the Madawaska Highlands is a strict ‘no-Trump zone. I will leave the fallout of his statements/tweets to political commentators.

G7 security perimeter

What did not happen in Quebec

No, what fascinates me is what did not happen in Quebec – i.e. there were no major security incidents. There were protests in Quebec City, several hundred kilometres from where the power set was discussing important things, but even these were minor in nature. According to Reuters, only ten people were arrested in connection with anti-G7 protests but the scattered demonstrations were largely peaceful as authorities closed off streets and responded to any protests with ranks of police in riot gear. Compare that with the 2010 G8/G20 disaster in Toronto where police cars were burned, bank windows were smashed and hundreds were arrested. The question raises itself: what was different this time in Canada?

Why?

There are at least two, and perhaps three, main reasons for the lack of serious incidents this time around. The first was the very wise decision, from an organisers’ perspective, to hold the meetings far away from a large urban centre. The 2010 debacle took place in Canada’s largest city and we all know what happened. This year’s version unfolded in a small venue away from any city. It was relatively easy to secure and monitor.

Many would argue that was a grossly disproportionate amount but it undoubtedly contributed to the complete absence of catastrophic attackSecondly, officials decided to devote a lot of money to security. A lot. According to estimates up to 70% of all resources earmarked for the summit, over $400 million, went to security. Many would argue that was a grossly disproportionate amount but it undoubtedly contributed to the complete absence of catastrophic attack or wildly violent demonstration.

Thirdly, perhaps, was the reaction of Canadian activists and protesters. It is possible, although I have no direct data to support this, that Canadians were appalled not only at what many labelled an overbearing police response eight years ago but also a disgusting display of wanton violence by the likes of the so-called Black Bloc. We are a diffident people and the scenes of chaos on the streets on Toronto in 2010 may have led many to take steps to avoid a repeat.

All in all a success story from the viewpoint of those charged with preventing bad things from happening. For those who see in this an unjustified quashing of legitimate dissent and speaking truth to power I will respond with a simple example. Can you imagine – go ahead and try – if anything had occurred last weekend to the US President? Anything from a pie in the face to an armed attack? You think he is angry at Canada now over trade? The implications of a security incident to that man make me shudder.

In a perfect world we would not need security and the nation’s people would have clear and unfettered access to its leaders. Alas, the world is not perfect and neither are our leaders. Especially some of them. As a result we put in place onerous security and stifle dissent to a degree. That is the planet we live on. You might want to get used to that.

The debate over prison conditions for convicted terrorists

Oddly enough, in an era where we almost instinctively associate terrorism with Islamist extremism, these two were right-wing in nature. And, the perpetrators of these acts of mass violence were both seeking some kind of easing of the penalties imposed on them for their actions.

The two perpetrators are Alexandre Bissonnette in Canada and Anders Breivik in Norway (odd fact: both men have the initials AB).

Both men are guilty: Breivik is already in prison and Bissonnette is in the midst of being sentencedThe former was the young man who entered a Quebec City mosque in January 2016 and shot six men at prayer dead and wounded five others. The latter placed a bomb outside a government building in Oslo in August 2011, killing eight and wounding at least 209 people and moved on to a Norwegian Labour Party youth gathering on Utoya Island, shooting 68 to death and wounding 105. Both men are guilty: Breivik is already in prison and Bissonnette is in the midst of being sentenced.

What is interesting and why I have elected to put them together in this blog, aside from similarities in motivation, is the attempt in both cases to gain easier conditions for incarceration. The lawyers for Bissonnette are arguing that the possibility he will have to serve six life sentences consecutively (NB in Canada life = 25 years normally), implying he could be locked up for 150 years – in essence meaning he will die in jail unless he is Methuselah – constitutes ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Likewise, Breivik has challenged the conditions of his time behind bars, calling it ‘inhumane’ (a court recently dismissed his case in this regard).

Police on the scene of the Quebec City mosque shooting
Police on the scene of the Quebec City mosque shooting.

Appropriate length of incarceration?

For the record, neither Canada nor Norway have the death penalty anymore (de facto Canada abandoned it in 1963 while Norway did away with the ultimate punishment fully in 1979). Also for the record, I am not in favour of the death penalty although I know a lot of people are, especially in cases of mass murder like these two.

We have tended to assign greater penalty to serious crimes that are carefully planned and acts of terrorism like these are clearly planned in advanceThe question remains and it is a good one: what is an appropriate length of incarceration for crimes of this nature? We have tended to assign greater penalty to serious crimes that are carefully planned (as opposed to spur of the moment ‘crimes of passion’) and acts of terrorism like these are clearly planned in advance. The fact that they are motivated out of some kind of ideological commitment also calls for more serious jail time in the minds of most people probably (interestingly Bissonnette’s team says he acted out of hatred and not ideology: this can be a fine line that is hard to disaggregate).

What then is an appropriate punishment for mass murder of this ilk? Is life justified (a loss of freedom in exchange for taking multiple lives?)? What about rehabilitation and reintegration at some point? Or do we as a society feel so revolted by these acts of terrorism that we do not want to ‘reward’ the terrorists by dangling the carrot of release, even if it is way down the road?

I do think that terrorism is a special category of offence that requires a special a category of incarceration. While I do believe that even men like Bissonnette and Breivik do retain the universal right to have their human rights honoured while in prison, they nevertheless have to sacrifice certain privileges in light of what they did. If not, the deaths of those who suffered at their hands becomes meaningless.

Score one for the good guys!

Well this was a day of opposites in Canadian news. This morning, the Globe and Mail reported that a man convicted almost 20 years ago in a murder case that was secured thanks to a ‘Mr Big’ operation wants the Supreme Court to re-open his case.

That same court ruled in 2014 that this tactic, under which the police gains a confession by inventing a criminal enterprise and having the suspect confess to an important figure (Mr Big) to prove his bona fides, was unreliable and that these ‘confessions’ should be taken as false. If this case goes forward, many are expecting the floodgates to open. A useful investigative tool will be removed.

Mr. Ader had been lured back to Canada by the RCMP in 2015 through a ruse that someone wanted to sign a lucrative book deal with the terrorist.This afternoon by contrast, an Ontario Superior Court judge found Ali Omar Adler guilty of helping to kidnap Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout back in 2008.  Mr. Ader had been lured back to Canada by the RCMP in 2015 through a ruse that someone wanted to sign a lucrative book deal with the terrorist. He was arrested upon his arrival. Given what Ms. Lindhout endured at the hands of her captors this is good news indeed.

Double standard?

So what gives? In one instance a false front is criticised while in another it is used to get a conviction (maybe Mr. Ader should hire the same lawyers as those the 20-year convict is using). Where is the consistency in all this? Why is one bad guy getting off while another is going to jail?

These characters don’t play by our rules and can be expected to take every advantage they can. This is street fighting, not Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules.These are important questions regarding jurisprudence and how we want our law enforcement and security intelligence agencies to do the tasks we ask them to. To me, the underlying important point is that these organisations deal with nasty characters, be they garden variety criminals, dangerous violent people or terrorists. Not surprisingly, these characters don’t play by our rules and can be expected to take every advantage they can. This is street fighting, not Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules.

Some would argue that the State has to set a very high standard and not engage in dirty pool. These people have never worked in counter terrorism or criminal cases I can assure you. To understand and interdict a terrorist you have to walk like a terrorist, talk like a terrorist and act like a terrorist. You have to discover weaknesses and exploit them. If you take the high road on every occasion you will not get the person you are pursuing and innocent people will die. I am not trying to be over dramatic here, just realistic.

bad good guys

The ”good bad guys”?

The same goes for the use of human sources and agents. You don’t catch bad guys by infiltrating their networks with Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. You have to use people who are convincing to the nefarious characters. And yes, on occasion, those sources and agents may have to break the law in the execution of their duties in order to expose a much larger criminal act before it takes place. That is how the game works.

I am sure there are many who will take offence to what I am writing here. The law is the law, to cite Inspector Javert of in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (“Right or wrong the law is the law and it must be obeyed to the letter”). The police or a nation’s spies cannot break it, even for the greater good. I respect this position even if I don’t agree with it.

As a society we have to decide what powers and what tools to give our protectors. Are we ok with the use of devious tactics to deal with devious actors? I know I am – are you?

Finally some data about the mental health-terrorism link

If there is one thing that frustrates me most it is the tendency of a lot of people, well-intentioned or otherwise, to make sweeping statements about terrorism – what it is, what causes it, etc.- without doing the minimum amount of real research to back up their claims.

I am sure you have read much of the same material I have: terrorism is caused by alienation; terrorism is linked to discrimination; terrorism thrives in poor socio-economic areas; and so on and so forth. Empty phrases much of the time.

Thank God I am not like that!

This is due to a kind of protective mechanism: we cannot fathom how what we see as a ‘normal’ human being could become a suicide bomber so we ascribe abnormality, in the form of mental illness, to the perpetrator.Another common trope is that terrorists usually suffer from mental illness or, if not a disease per se, at least some kind of mental condition.

This seems to be something that many are more than happy to accept, whether or not there is any empirical data to support the belief. I surmise that this is due to a kind of protective mechanism: we cannot fathom how what we see as a ‘normal’ human being could become a suicide bomber so we ascribe abnormality, in the form of mental illness, to the perpetrator.

That way we can compartmentalize the culprit and separate whatever he (or she) believed in from an ideological angle from what we ‘normal’ ones do. Phew! Thank God I am not like that!

The problem is that we simply do not have a tonne of information to underscore this conviction. Part of the challenge is that it is really tough (!) to interview or do psychiatric testing on successful suicide attackers and even those that do survive their acts are often imprisoned and that too is an obstacle. In other cases the literature is inconsistent.

Back to the paper

I want to focus today on one paper recently published in The Journal of Personality Assessment by a friend of mine, Paul Gill of University College London and his former graduate student Emily Corner, now a lecturer in Canberra (as well as two people I don’t know – Ronald Schouten and Frank Farnham). But before I do that, allow me a rant. I find it unconscionable that journals and reviews charge exorbitant fees to read articles submitted by scholars.

These costs, I am sure, make it almost inevitable that most people will never be aware of this research. This is doubly unacceptable since many of these researchers receive public funding. I for one would like to see more general, cost-free access. There, rant over. Back to the paper.

Mental disorder prevalence across terrorist actors and the general population

uter_a_1120099_f0002_oc

Gill et al try to put what we know and what we don’t about the link between mental illness and what they call ‘grievance-fueled targeted violence’ (of which terrorism is a subset). Here is the abstract:

This article aims to move away from intuitive appeals that link mental disorder with violence such as terrorism, mass murder, and other targeted violence. The article synthesizes the existing evidence base regarding the relationship between mental disorders and personality traits and (a) attitudinal affinities with violent causes, and (b) a number of violent behaviors (including mass murder and terrorism). The evidence base is mixed and the research focus changed across time: from simple and unempirical assertions of causation to an almost complete rejection of their presence to a finer grained and disaggregated understanding. Empirical research examining mental disorder in crime and violence highlights that the commission of such events is a complex synthesis of psychopathology, personal circumstance, and environment. The article concludes with several suggestions regarding future research and practice.

My takeaway from the article is something I have been saying for decades: terrorism is complicated.

Here is another excerpt from the paper that says much the same thing: ”The presence of symptoms of a mental disorder will only ever be one (NB emphasis added) of many factors in an individual’s movement toward radicalization, planning a terrorist attack, and following an attack. In many cases, psychological problems might be present, but completely unrelated.” And, the last paragraph:

Finally, despite the nascent empirical research showing the prevalence of mental disorders within terrorist samples, it is worth noting that such individuals typically remain a minority in most samples. This attests to the limitations of expecting mental health professionals to identify individuals at risk of carrying out mass violence. In many cases, psychologists might have little to contribute in those circumstances in which potential perpetrators display no psychological disturbance and continue to act rationally.

Finally!

This is an important contribution to a field that has been to date poorly served and begins to put real numbers to assertions.I want to commended Gill et al for this work (and not just because Paul is a friend). This is an important contribution to a field that has been to date poorly served and begins to put real numbers to assertions. I have always felt that the connection between mental illness and terrorism was not as many were asserting. Then again, my views are based on what I saw as an analyst at CSIS but I have precisely zero background in psychology or psychiatry.

This is why I am excited that this kind of analysis is – finally! – being carried out. There are still challenges, however, mostly tied to data collection (all the stuff I had access to at CSIS remains out of the public sphere for example). Nevertheless I remain optimistic that we will now begin to see work along these lines.

I remain skeptical that there is a causational relationship between psychopathy and terrorism but I am open to changing my mind.

To Gill et al and others – please keep doing this. It is much appreciated!

A good day for anti-extremist forces

Sometimes you just have to applaud the police. Yes, I know that they are often accused of, and even involved in, things that are not right, such as brutality or profiling or bias and these are issues that indeed must be identified and rectified.

Police officers are human after all and hence fallible but as the public places an inordinate amount of trust in them they are held to a high standard, fairly or otherwise.

I am a fervent supporter of the men and women who put themselves at risk to protect us day-in day-outThose who have read my posts and know my background already are aware of where I stand on our law enforcement neighbors. Not only did I work for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section for the better part of a year but I have lectured to, and have many friends in, police forces at all levels in Canada and in the US. So yes, I am a fervent supporter of the men and women who put themselves at risk to protect us day-in day-out.

Legitimate criticism aside, police forces do not get enough credit, in my humble view, when things go well. I’d like to change that, if even for a tiny bit, by writing today about a successful investigation (so far) by the Hamilton Police Service. If you recall (here is a link to my blog on it), back in early March a bunch of hooligan wankers (that is the technical term for them) went on a looting spree in the Locke Street area of downtown Hamilton. Calling themselves “We are the Ungovernables”, these masked crusaders went on a rampage throwing rocks through the windows of local businesses, and the damage was estimated at over $100,000. The apparent catalyst of their violent march: the gentrification of Hamilton neighbourhoods.

Hamilton-Police-presence-keeps-opposing-ideological-groups-apart-on-Locke-Street-4
Police presence keeps opposing ideological groups apart on Locke Street

Three suspects

Through a police investigation, three suspects have been arrested and warrants have been issued for three more. Three cheers for HPS! Hard work has paid off and one hopes that the book will be thrown at these ‘justice warriors’. Regardless of the legitimacy of their concerns, throwing rocks through the windows of small businesses is reprehensible. These activists were not after the Starbucks and Pradas of this world: they hit a ‘Donut Monster’ for God’s sake! Any sympathy they hoped to gain for their ’cause’ should have evaporated the minute they elected to damage a mom and pop store.

After all these ‘heroes’ were wearing masks in an attempt to hide their acts of freedom from the rest of usBut back to Hamilton Police. I have no idea how they carried out their investigation and how they ended up with three people in custody. After all these ‘heroes’ were wearing masks in an attempt to hide their acts of freedom from the rest of us. Did a concerned citizen step forward? Did one of the vandals let his face show? Did the police already have an investigation into the ”Ungovernable”? Did they have an agent? A warrant? Whatever they were able to use kudos to their efforts.

Now comes the important part. We need to, as a society, express our revulsion at these tactics. Gentrification may indeed be a serious social problem (I for one have no idea) and if so let us address it within the proper channels. Running down the street tossing stones is not one of those channels. We must, through the court system, state clearly that these actions are unacceptable and that the perpetrators will be punished accordingly (and apologise to those small business owners).

Extremism is extremism, irrespective of political or ideological stripe. If we consider ourselves to be a civilized nation, then we must restrict the use of force to the State (and even that must be judiciously exercised). Allowing cowardly actors to cavort violently through our towns is not ok. The ‘Ungovernables’ have to be made to see that.

Sometimes a bomb is just a bomb

OK, so what were YOU doing at 545 Friday morning? Sleeping soundly I sincerely hope.

As for me, I was getting ready to go on a Toronto talk radio programme to weigh in on an incident at an Indian restaurant in Mississauga Thursday evening when two men wearing disguises left a bomb that exploded, wounding 15 people, 12 seriously (no deaths so far thankfully).

I initially hesitated to agree to do the show for three reasons:

  1. I had just awakened when I read the email asking me to appear;
  2. The first inkling I had of the bombing came at 545 Friday morning;
  3. The sum of my understanding, as well as that of anyone else for that matter, was next to zero.
Investigators continue to search for clues near the Bombay Bhel on Friday
Investigators continue to search for clues near the Bombay Bhel on Friday.
Appear on the programme I nevertheless did

I am happy it was a quick five-minute cut as I wasn’t sure how much more I could say about what had transpired at the Bombay Bhel restaurant at 2230 on Thursday.  At the time of writing, not much more is known and police are still looking for the two suspects. There has not been any progress so far on a motive.

And yet I was hesitant to say anything beyond what we knew at the time which was, for all intents, next to nothing.I know why the radio station approached me to do the interview (or at least I think I do). My reputation as a former CSIS guy willing to talk publicly about all things terrorism and national security is getting out there I suppose. I do enjoy engaging with reporters and journalists and hope that my insider contributions are seen as worthwhile.

And yet I was hesitant to say anything beyond what we knew at the time which was, for all intents, next to nothing. No statement. No claim of responsibility. No identity of the perpetrators. No idea why this restaurant was targeted. Nothing.

We are becoming all too familiar with bombs these days, whether they are IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or suicide vests. Scarcely a day goes by in which there is a not an attack somewhere carried out by this terrorist group or that, all in the name of some cause (divine or otherwise).  We are living in the era of the easy-to-make explosive.

Sorry, no idea

So was what happened in a family restaurant (where two birthday parties were happening by the way) terrorism?  Sorry, no idea. Perhaps, but we need a lot more information before we can make that call. Remember that terrorism requires a specific motive (political, religious or ideological under Canadian law) and there is nothing to suggest any of that so far.

It is equally as likely that the attack was any of (or combination of): personal vendetta; a business rivalry; a criminal act; the settling of a score; an act of intimidation; a random act of violence. Pick one as your working theory and gather your supporting evidence.

Big black bomb

Hypothesis

If we want to go down the terrorism path there are a few aspects that would back that hypothesis.

  1. Groups like Islamic State have been suggesting for years that wannabes hit soft targets like restaurants.
  2. Easy to strike venues are more prone to success than hardened ones.
  3. India is both home to several Islamist extremist organisations and in the grasp of a Hindu nationalist regime which has its own terrorists, some of whom are targeting India’s Muslims (making the Mississauga attack a possible retaliatory one).

I want to caution, however, that I have no information to back any of this up.

My point is that sometimes a bomb is just a bomb.My point is that sometimes a bomb is just a bomb (no slight intended to the victims). It is not always an act of terrorism. We have ‘terrorism on the brain’ these days and I fear that we ram every event we witness through that filter. If it walks like terrorism and talks like terrorism it must be terrorism, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

We should learn more in the coming days about what really happened two nights ago and why. Police will probably make an arrest and then we can figure out motive if we are lucky (and the two men talk).

Until that time we should refrain from drawing conclusions. Terrorism is all too real but it is still not an everyday event everywhere. We would be best to remember that.

How reliable are terrorist ‘defectors’?

For many people the solution to terrorism is quite simple.  Those who are fighting with groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State and others can be killed in airstrikes, drone strikes or armed combat.

Those who are captured alive can be turned over to local officials or brought home for trial where they can be found guilty and incarcerated for life. Problem solved!

Oh if only life were that easy

Keeping someone locked up is very expensive and returning that person to the community can boost collective prosperity and can benefit many, not just the offenderMany countries believe that everyone, regardless of the offence they committed, even a terrorist, deserves a second chance. As a result we have created rehabilitation programs of various ilks in the hope that with the proper help a former criminal can revert to a normal human being and be re-integrated into society. This makes sense on at least two levels: keeping someone locked up is very expensive and returning that person to the community can boost collective prosperity and can benefit many, not just the offender.

The difficulty lies in determining whether these efforts really work. I am not an expert in criminal rehabilitation and recidivism so I will not go there. Instead, I will focus my remarks on terrorists and the likelihood that they can ever be released into open society without any residual risk. Whether we call this de-radicalisation or disengagement or rehabilitation – all three terms do have different meanings and consequences – this will be glossed over for the sake of this blog.

There do appear to be instances where those found guilty of terrorist offences have successfully been liberated and have not gone on to re-offend.  This is a good thing and does provide some support for those who are responsible for these programs, while at the same time deflating some of the arguments of the ‘lock ’em up forever!’ crowd. I do think that these efforts should continue provided they are done by those qualified to do so (alas, just as in ‘terrorism expertise’ there are some who are most probably winging it).

terrorists in prison

But, as a former intelligence analyst I have to insert a cautionary note if for no other reason then when someone does carry out a terrorist attack after having ‘graduated’ from a rehab course agencies like CSIS and the RCMP get the blame (“Why were you not following a known terrorist?!”). My fundamental position is the following: there is no program, no matter how good it is, that can offer a 100% guarantee that an ‘ex’ terrorist will never re-engage in terrorism. The risk is never zero, implying that we need to be able to live with a non-zero threat. We do so in other fields of endeavour: should we be as welcoming with terrorism?  Good question.

High profile cases

There have of course been some high profile cases of ‘formers’ who go back to their violent extremist ways. The most famous is that of the US/Jordanian agent who had been affiliated with Islamic State in Iraq, ‘rehabilitated from extremist views’, and killed seven CIA officers and a Jordanian military official in Afghanistan in late 2009. Just this week a ‘recently defected’ Al Shabaab terrorist killed a Somali soldier and rejoined the group.

While these stories may not be everyday occurrences they do point to the inherent danger of believing terrorists when they claim that they no longer belong to their cause and can be trusted to revert to everyday life. The bottom line is this: the only foolproof way to prevent someone from carrying out a terrorist act is to prevent that person from becoming a terrorist in the first place. Any venture down that path, no matter how minor,  cannot be shown to have been erased completely. We cannot peer into the minds of terrorists anymore than we can peer into the minds of anyone else so stop pretending we can predict future behaviour.

If I am correct the challenge is a huge one!If I am correct the challenge is a huge one. What level of possible future danger are we willing to accept? That is a question I cannot answer. It does, however, have a bearing on what to do with someone like Abu Huzayfa, the Canadian-IS returnee who may or may not have killed people in Syria and who now says he has renounced terrorism.

In the end, I welcome attempts to work with truly remorseful extremists who are truly sincere in their desire to reject the hate and violence they once were part of (after paying back society for their crimes of course), including what my friend Mubin Shaikh seems to have done with Abu Huzayfa. What I want in return is an acknowledgement that no plan is perfect and that no one can ever say that so-and-so represents absolutely no menace to society.

We need these efforts but we also need honesty, modesty and a lack of hubris in what can in fact be achieved.

The damned if you do damned if you don’t problem with CVE

When I was at Public Saftey Canada, I had the opportunity to work in outreach with some outstanding civil servants. They would organise sessions across the country with a variety of communities to engage on a wide range of topics all related in some way to public safety. I was invited on some of them when the topic was violent extremism and radicalisation.

All of these talks, or at least the vast majority, were held with Canadian Muslim communities. This made sense for me since that was what I specialised in: violent Islamist extremism. It would have been pointless to use my experience in any other matter. We were able to carefully and properly construct these sessions – it is after all hard to talk to a community about the possibility of terrorism in their midst – but I think we did it well (judged by the feedback we received).

UK

Although this is not ‘outreach’, there is already a hue and cry in the UK over plans to allow MI5 to target people for identification before concrete moves to carry out acts of terrorism materialiseOther places are struggling with this model. Although this is not ‘outreach’, there is already a hue and cry in the UK over plans to allow MI5, the British Security Service (akin to CSIS), to target people for identification before concrete moves to carry out acts of terrorism materialise. One guess who the focused communities are: Muslim. This new strategy seems to be tied to the UK’s PREVENT program (one of the four pillars of CONTEST – the counter terrorism strategy) under which “faith leaders, teachers, doctors and other community leaders (are called upon) to report suspicions about people who may be leaning towards radicalisation to a local Prevent body”.

That there is opposition is of no surprise. British Muslim communities are probably sick and tired of being ‘targeted’ by the security services and of the conviction held by some that they are uniquely associated with terrorism. I get that.  And yet a cursory glance at recent successful, as well as foiled, terrorist attacks in the UK show quite convincingly that the majority are perpetrated by radicalised UK Muslims. Yes, there have been attacks by the far right, but I am pretty sure the figures show they are in the minority, so far (that could very well change as many have predicted).

UC Davis students invited to fast for a day with Muslim community and share their experiences
UC Davis students invited to fast for a day with Muslim community and share their experiences

What then should the state do?

Limit its efforts to tracking known terrorists and interdicting them before they act (one hopes)? Is the public okay with a failure rate in this regard? Is there a need for dialogue and outreach? Is there nothing to be gained by helping to identify early the small numbers of British Muslims who demonstrate signs of radicalisation to violence (there are signs but they are not 100% predictive in nature) and get them to reconsider?

If we want to reduce the number of terrorist attacks as well as the number of people whose lives are ruined because they radicalised to violence, we need to have agencies other than the security services and law enforcement talking to and listening to communities.I think that outreach can be done well as we were able to do so in Canada. And I am sure that my former colleagues would love to share current best practices and lessons learned with anyone else. There is, however, an outstanding problem. We talked with Canadian Muslims because that was where a problem was shown to occur. Some may have felt singled out but that does not mean that there were not issues that needed to be put on the table. Where would the state go to address right-wing extremism? Is there a ‘community’ where this can be presented? Of that I am not certain. We benefited from mosques and Islamic centres and Muslim youth leaders to plan our sessions. Is there an equivalent on the far right? Perhaps so, and if my readers know more than I do I’d love to hear from you.

Outreach delivers multiple benefits for both sides and hence it is a good thing to do. It is never perfect but an honest effort is usually appreciated. If we want to reduce the number of terrorist attacks as well as the number of people whose lives (and those of their families) are ruined because they radicalised to violence we need to have agencies other than the security services and law enforcement talking to and listening to communities.

There are multiple actors in the counter terrorism game and each has a contribution to make. These are efforts worth making.

The problem with terrorism ‘expertise’

Like most people I had a fascination with dinosaurs when I was a kid. I had plastic dinosaurs and books on these grand behemoths. I loved movies about them, even if they were really bad 1960s sci-fi ones that were as inaccurate as possible.

In my 20s, I began to read more recent books on dinosaurs, catching up on the latest scientific discoveries, the most important of which of course was the discovery that a huge asteroid hitting the earth some 66 million years ago was the most likely cause of their demise and the reason why we are not ruled by these reptiles today (although some would argue that a few current leaders have reptilian characteristics!).

It is probable that the extinction was caused by a number of factors working hand in hand.As science is always changing in the face of new evidence, the debate over what exactly happened to rid us of these magnificent creatures is still ongoing. Even though we have strong reasons to believe the asteroid hypothesis (in rock structures which have been found near Mexico) others have put forward massive volcanic eruptions in an area called the Deccan Traps (in modern day India). It is probable that the extinction was caused by a number of factors working hand in hand.

What is probably NOT a factor is indigestion.  A recent paper presented the ‘biotic revenge hypothesis’, a theory that dinosaurs failed to learn which plants were bad for them and basically starved to death. Interesting, but with absolutely no evidence. The authors tried to use modern day caimans, which are NOT related to dinosaurs, to prove their point. No one seems to be taking their idea very seriously.

A fried dinosaur in the wake of mass extinction at the San Diego Natural History Museum
A fried dinosaur in the wake of the K/Pg mass extinction at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

What on earth do two psychologists have to do with dinosaurs?

Why, then, am I mentioning any of this in a resilience blog? Because, it turns out that the authors of the ‘gastric pains’ proposal are, wait for it, two American psychologists (one an ‘evolutionary’ psychologist). I hope you have the same question I did: what on earth do two psychologists have to do with dinosaurs? The answer should be: nothing at all (you can click on this to see how they justify their right to comment on a field of which they know nothing).

As I have often noted, just because you can spell terrorism does not make you an expert.This is unfortunately all too true in terrorist studies. Terrorism is a complicated phenomenon that touches on a wide range of fields: political science, history, psychology, sociology, etc. And we have learned a lot from these various disciplines over the last 20 years or so that have helped us understand more about terrorism. This does not mean, however, that everyone in these given areas has anything useful to say. As I have often noted, just because you can spell terrorism does not make you an expert.

Pseudo expertise

In the wake of the awful planned attack in Toronto last Monday, which may or may not be an act of terrorism (I still lean to the latter as do many true experts I have a lot of time for), some of this ‘pseudo expertise’ came out in spades. To cite just one example, on CBC’s The Current, host Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed a trio of ‘experts’ on the incel movement which the suspect, is apparently (based on one Facebook post mind you) tied to. Here is one excerpt which caught my ear

Great quote. Except that it is false and there is little evidence I have seen to back it up. In all my years looking at Islamist extremism in Canada (and to a lesser extent in the West) I very rarely saw this link. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, I can recall one single case of a Canadian who radicalised to violence who was also a domestic abuser. One. Let me repeat this so it sinks in. ONE.  So much for the ‘almost always’ claim of certainty by a journalist with the LGBTQ magazine Extra in Toronto who apparently has written on incel. So this makes him an ‘expert’ on terrorism because???

Hello I am an expertMy point is that when something of the magnitude of Monday’s incident occurs, we are inundated with ‘experts’ who have all the answers. Media outlets struggle to find someone willing to go on air to talk about what just happened, to ‘explain’ what just happened (full disclosure: I did more than 50 interviews for TV, radio and print media and I tried to be careful with what I knew based on the little information then available). Judiciousness is not always in play here as the demand for immediate comment outstrips the ability to determine true expertise (furthermore, many real experts often work in security intelligence and law enforcement agencies who will not or cannot comment). We are thus exposed to some really good people and a tonne of really bad ones.

My advice to my readers is simple.

When you listen to a self-styled expert on terrorism, check out why they are so. What have they written? Where do they get their information from? Why are they offering comment? It may not be always so easy to find answers to these questions but it may help you divide true expertise from false.

In the end, a lot of what I read and hear about terrorism gives me ‘gastric pains’. Maybe I should see a psychologist. Or maybe I am just a dinosaur.