Terrorism: plus ca change (Part 1)

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

For many in the post 9/11 world, it may seem as if terrorism is something new – and terrible. We are constantly inundated with news about attacks here and attacks there, sometimes in our own backyard. For instance, Canadians were hit with a double whammy over two days in late October 2014 when two Islamist extremists killed two members of the Armed Forces in Montreal and Ottawa.

It may appear at first blush that terrorism is a new scourge, and one that we are having a very hard time eradicating. And it all began with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that fateful day 18 years ago, right?

The last prisoners awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror in 1794, undated engraving
The last prisoners awaiting execution during the Reign of Terror in 1794, undated engraving.

Except that terrorism is not new. Not at all.

The term ‘terrorism’ itself is not that old – its first usage dates back to the French Revolution (do you remember reading about the ‘Reign of Terror‘?). As a more widespread phenomenon, however, I imagine most scholars would say that it really took off in the late 19th century. The first broad manifestation of it was the wave of anarchist attacks that plagued the West in the form of assassinations (although assassinations certainly pre-date the acts of anarchists – et tu Brute?) and bombings.

Among the victims of terrorist acts were Tsar Alexander II (1881), French President Carnot (1894), Spanish Prime Minister Canovas de Castillo (1897), Italian King Umberto (1900) and US President McKinley (1901).

The TV version is quite compelling and very true to the original book: I highly recommend you watch it

All this came to me as I watched a recent dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s classic 1907 novel The Secret Agent. This is the fictionalised story of a group of revolutionaries bent on undermining British complacency to terrorism by blowing up the iconic Greenwich Observatory.

The TV version is quite compelling and very true to the original book: I highly recommend you watch it (available on Acorn TV, an American subscription streaming service offering television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Spain).

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent is a riveting masterpiece of literature with all the requisite characters: Verloc, the agent provocateur who owns a seedy shop in Soho and who is paid to infiltrate terrorist cells; the Professor, a madman who makes explosives; Winnie, Verloc’s wife who tolerates her husband’s activities until it is too late; Stevie, Winnie’s simpleton brother who dies tragically for a cause he cannot understand; Vladimir, the First Secretary at the Russian Embassy in London who wants to shake Britain to the core and force it to crack down on the anarchists; and the Chief Inspector trying to keep a lid on all the violence.

What is more important for our purposes today is the fact that while the anarchist ‘wave’ of terrorism (to use David Rapoport’s framework) may have waned in the aftermath of WWI it did not disappear. Anarchist groups – Black Bloc is a good example – are still among us and still capable of carrying out acts of violence. They are still against capitalism, a system they think insulates those in positions of economic power and disenfranchises those of targeted groups. And as economic inequality is still with us, and may be getting worse, it is not too difficult to predict the actions of these terrorists will increase.

All this merely underscores the reality that terrorism is a longstanding problem and remains complicated. Yes, Islamist terrorism still poses the greatest threat and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future but attacks by anarchists, other far right extremists, ethno-nationalist groups and probably eventually far left actors cannot be ignored. We might want to keep this in mind as we continue to deal with terrorism. We also might want to brush up on our history so that we don’t assume that our problems are new ones.

As for me I think I will re-read The Secret Agent this week and I think you should give it a go as well.


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.

How France created the metric system

On the facade of the Ministry of Justice in Paris, just below a ground-floor window, is a marble shelf engraved with a horizontal line and the word ‘MÈTRE’. It is hardly noticeable in the grand Place Vendôme: in fact, out of all the tourists in the square, I was the only person to stop and consider it.

But this shelf is one of the last remaining ‘mètre étalons’ (standard metre bars) that were placed all over the city more than 200 years ago in an attempt to introduce a new, universal system of measurement. And it is just one of many sites in Paris that point to the long and fascinating history of the metric system.

Today, the metric system, which was created in France, is the official system of measurement for every country in the world except three: the United States, Liberia and Myanmar, also known as Burma.Measurement is one of the most banal and ordinary things, but it’s actually the things we take for granted that are the most interesting and have such contentious histories,” said Dr Ken Alder, history professor at Northwestern University and author of The Measure of All Things, a book about the creation of the metre.

We don’t generally notice measurement because it’s pretty much the same everywhere we go. Today, the metric system, which was created in France, is the official system of measurement for every country in the world except three: the United States, Liberia and Myanmar, also known as Burma. And even then, the metric system is still used for purposes such as global trade.

> Read entire article How France created the metric system | Madhvi Ramani | BBC

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.

One dead, 13 others sick in raw cheese E. coli outbreak

A French company this weekend expanded its recall of cheese made with unpasteurized milk after health officials reported a seventh child has developed kidney failure because of an E. coli infection linked to the cheese.

At least 14 children age 5 and younger from various regions of France are confirmed with E. coli 026 infections, according to French officials. One child has died from a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

The Fromagerie Chabert company, which manufactured the implicate cheese, recalled certain batches of its Reblochons on May 14 after the French Ministry of Solidarity and Health reported seven children aged 18 months to 3 years had E. coli 026 infections. Six of them had developed HUS at that time

> Read entire article One child dead, 13 others sick in raw cheese E. coli outbreak | Food Safety News

French art gallery discovers more than half its paintings are fake

An art gallery dedicated to the work of Catalan artist Etienne Terrus – a close friend of Henri Matisse – has discovered more than half of its paintings are fake.

French media reported that the state-owned museum in Elne in the south of France could have spent as much as €160,000 (£140,000) on the forgeries over a 20-year period.

Staff at the museum were unaware of the fakes until art historian Eric Forcada flagged his suspicions several months ago.

Read entire article French art gallery discovers more than half its paintings are fake | Sky News

To Pay or Not to Pay: Airbus Faces Dilemma as Bribery Probes Loom

Airbus SE is being forced by French courts to pay millions of dollars to partners who it alleges used corruption to broker aircraft deals in strategic countries.

Published on Bloomberg Technology | By Ania Nussbaum and Gaspard Sebag

In one case, the manufacturer was made to settle an outstanding $825,000 bill from a go-between that helped secure sales in China even after Airbus said it had evidence the business relationship was “tarnished” by corruption, according to an unreported ruling released earlier this month.

Airbus argued this “called for suspending all payments.”

The court proceedings have put Airbus in a seemingly contradictory situation. The planemaker is under investigation for paying bribes to secure overseas contracts and says it’s cooperating and turning over evidence from an internal investigation. But judges have stymied the company’s efforts to cut off brokers who it suspects have facilitated questionable payments.

Court says planemaker failed to prove corruption by partners, as a result, Airbus faces court orders to pay intermediaries.

Read entire article To Pay or Not to Pay: Airbus Faces Dilemma as Bribery Probes Loom | Bloomberg Technology

France to sue Apple and Google over unacceptable practices

The French government said Wednesday that it would take Google and Apple to court over “abusive business practices” against smaller rivals, threatening fines that could further strain transatlantic ties as fears of a trade war grow.

Published on The Manilla Times | By Agence France-Presse

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced Wednesday a lawsuit against Apple and Google for what he claims are “abusive” practices against software developers.

I believe in an economy based on justice and I will take Google and Apple before the Paris Commercial Court for abusive business practices” against French start-ups, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio.

He said in particular that the two US giants imposed financial conditions on French app developers while siphoning data on their use, and that both Apple and Google “can unilaterally modify contracts”.

Technology start-ups are a favourite of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to overhaul the nation’s laws and regulations to allow entrepreneurs to flourish.

The action is based on an inquiry by France’s anti-fraud office from 2015 to 2017 which uncovered “a significant imbalance” in their relations with French companies, a finance ministry source told AFP.

Read entire article France warns Apple and Google of fines | The Manilla Times

Cyclone Zeus’ loss estimated at 284 million euros

PERILS, the independent Zurich-based organization that provides industry-wide catastrophe insurance data, has disclosed a third loss estimate of 284 million euros for extratropical cyclone Zeus, which affected France on March 6 and 7.

The revised estimate of the property insurance market loss is up from the second loss estimate of 269 million euros, issued by PERILS on June 6, three months after the event. The revised figure is based on actual loss data collected from insurance companies and is issued six months after the event, in line with the PERILS reporting schedule, the organization explained in a press release on Wednesday.

The initial loss estimate, on April 13, was 192 million euros.

In the third loss report, the market loss data are available by CRESTA (Catastrophe Risk Evaluation and Standardizing Target Accumulations) zone and property line of business. This loss footprint information is complemented by gust speed values and loss ratios, which show the incurred loss from Zeus as a percentage of the sums insured, PERILS explained in the release.

“Given its market loss of EUR 284 million, windstorm Zeus ranks as a moderate event on a European scale, as it is a loss figure that would be expected to be reached or exceeded at least once a year,” Luzi Hitz, CEO of PERILS, said in the release. “For the French market alone, however, it represents a more significant event as such a loss would be expected to be reached or exceeded every three years.”

The detailed loss footprint for Zeus released on Wednesday provides new data points relating to the damage to insured property caused by windstorms in France. In addition, it provides new benchmark information for the calibration of existing risk models and thus contributes to a more robust and realistic assessment of European windstorm risk.

Source: Canadian Underwriter

How soon will peak oil demand arrive?

Predictions vary by decades, but most agree it is coming, with major implications.

In the first decade of the 2000s, there was growing concern about so-called “Peak Oil,” based on a theory developed by Shell oil engineer M. King Hubbert, who in the 1940s predicted that output of oil in the lower 48 states in the US would peak in the 1970s, a projection that turned out to be spot on 30 years later – for a time.

Others jumped on the concept to predict a top for global oil output, with many in the 1990s saying that world oil production would peak about 2008. That turned out not to be true, as fracking and other unconventional techniques greatly added to oil output, pushing prices way down.

Now, rather than concerns about Peak Oil supply sending prices way up, as we saw for a while in 2008, now the oil patch is more focused on Peak Demand – the point at which world consumption of oil reaches its inevitable peak.

In 2015, oil’s share of world energy consumption increased modestly for the first time since 1999, driven by dramatically falling prices.

A combination of more efficient car engines, a trend towards electric vehicles, rising using of solar and wind power and more have many convince Peak Demand is near – with a huge impact on society, the supply chain, the global warming discussion and more.

The Wall Street Journal reports that forecasts for peak oil demand diverge by decades. For example, the Paris-based International Energy Agency predicts that demand will grow, though slowly, past 2040. Meanwhile, the two biggest US oil companies, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, say peak demand isn’t in sight, while some big European producers predict that a peak could emerge as soon as 2025 or 2030.

Of note is the fact that the consumption of oil in developed economies has been declining for many years.

TheGreenSupplyChain.com covers that report each year, noting last year BP’s analysis showed that oil’s share of world energy consumption in 2015 increased modestly for the first time since 1999, driven by dramatically falling prices.

Source: Green Supply Chain

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Big data a “key to reducing food waste”?

Rising costs of food wastage and legislation aimed at reducing the problem is motivating organizations to use big data in order to combat the issue.

The inaccurate forecasting of increasing consumer demand, which can lead to huge piles of wasted food, can be alleviated by analyzing waste streams and determining an “optimum inventory level”, according to Quantzig.

The analytics and advisory firm said: “Big data analytics helps in addressing business problems, benchmarking performance metrics and thereby implementing best practices across the organisation, improving efficiency and driving profitability.”

Such is the problem of food wastage – the United Nations has reported that approximately one third of food produced worldwide is wasted – some nations, including Italy and France, have ordered food retailers to donate food rather than throw it away.

Altona fish market
The inaccurate forecasting of increasing consumer demand, which can lead to huge piles of wasted food, can be alleviated by analyzing waste streams and determining an optimum inventory level.

Quantzig, which has worked with hundreds of companies in the food and beverage industry, has outlined key processes to manufacturers and retailers that should be adopted to address this issue in the food supply chain:

Leveraging data analytics

The report states that data should be collated on stores and locations that generate the highest wastage levels, which increases costs to the companies and infringes upon legislation for dealing with food wastage.

This data can then be used to adjust supply accordingly to these locations. A constant monitoring and analysing of this data, adjusting for differing demands and seasonal trends, can improve a company’s waste management issues.

Source: Supply Chain Digital

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Will France actually ban all gas and diesel vehicles by 2040?

Paris is set to ban diesel cars within city limits by 2025, which may well serve as a trial run for the rest of the country for gas and diesel cars by 2040.

Environment minister unveils five-year-plan to fulfil country’s commitments under Paris Agreement.

France plans to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, the country’s new environment minister has announced.

Nicolas Hulot made the announcement as he unveiled a series of measures as part of newly elected President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.

Mr Hulot said he recognised the target would put pressure on France’s car manufacturers, but he said they currently had projects which “can fulfill that promise”.

As part of the plan, poorer households will receive a premium so they can swap their polluting vehicles for clean alternatives.

The announcement comes after Volvo said on Wednesday it planned to built only electric and hybrid vehicles from 2019.

Speaking at a press conference, Mr Hulot told reporters France would stop using coal to produce electricity by 2022. The announcements are part of a five-year-plan to encourage clean energy and fulfill the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Source: The Guardian

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