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.

Obesity

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.

Vaccines

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.

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World Mental Health Day 2018

Adolescence and the early years of adulthood are a time of life when many changes occur, for example changing schools, leaving home, and starting university or a new job.

For many, these are exciting times. They can also be times of stress and apprehension however. In some cases, if not recognized and managed, these feelings can lead to mental illness. The expanding use of online technologies, while undoubtedly bringing many benefits, can also bring additional pressures, as connectivity to virtual networks at any time of the day and night grows.

Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated.Many adolescents are also living in areas affected by humanitarian emergencies such as conflicts, natural disasters and epidemics. Young people living in situations such as these are particularly vulnerable to mental distress and illness.

Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated. In terms of the burden of the disease among adolescents, depression is the third leading cause.

> Read entire article World Mental Health Day 2018 | World Health Organization

See also:

The new phones that are stuck in the past

It was back in 2008 when Norwegian entrepreneur Petter Neby and his stepdaughter first realised they had a problem. Their cell phones were getting in the way of their relationship. They stared at their screens during dinner, before bed and lounging around home.

It was an addiction they couldn’t break, almost like eating chocolate, Neby thought. Eventually, he knew he needed to reconnect to his stepdaughter without the filter of technology.

How can I put the delicious chocolate in the refrigerator?” he said. “If it’s out, I will eat it all.”

After several years of tinkering, Neby invented the solution to his mobile obsession: another cell phone. But unlike his Blackberry, this one was specifically designed to promote healthy behaviour by being used as little as possible. With this idea in mind, Neby’s company Punkt was born.

> Read entire article The new phones that are stuck in the past | BBC

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

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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!

Why it is important to reserve judgment on the Toronto attack

It is a little past 7 PM on Monday, April 23 as I pen this op-ed in Ottawa. A little more than 5 hours ago a rented van appeared to jump a curb and run down pedestrians near the corner of Finch and Yonge streets in North Toronto. A man is in custody following an incredibly professional arrest by a Toronto Police Services officer who acted with amazing coolness given the situation. There are at least nine dead and 16 wounded: those figures could of course change.

As soon as I read a tweet from a friend and trusted source, a real Canadian terrorism expert, I felt a knot in my stomach.When the incident occurred I was on Twitter, sharing news stories about terrorism with likeminded people because that is what I have chosen to do after a three decade-long career with Canada’s security intelligence services. As soon as I read a tweet from a friend and trusted source, a real Canadian terrorism expert, I felt a knot in my stomach. We know a little more now than five hours ago but even at that early juncture it showed some hallmarks of a terrorist attack. We certainly have seen analogous events around the world far too often of late: Nice, Barcelona, London, Edmonton, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. All terrible attacks and all terrorist in nature. Not again was my first thought.

And yet I did not jump up and yell “this is terrorism!” right away, and I don’t now. The simple reason for that is I have no idea why the driver, who is apparently a Caucasian Seneca College student, did what he did and I do not think anyone else knows. That did not stop people on Twitter from drawing that conclusion.

Deadly van attack in Toronto

If it walks like a duck…

I learned a long time ago that to be accurate and to do true analysis you need intelligence and/or information to make a judgment and we do not have that yet. We may learn more about the suspect if he cooperates with police. We may learn more from his social media postings or emails, if a warrant is obtained. We may learn more from family, friends, workmates, etc. Until then we cannot make that call.

I learned a long time ago that to be accurate and to do true analysis you need intelligence and/or information to make a judgment and we do not have that yet.There is an old saying ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it must be a duck’. Not necessarily. While the obvious MO shares a lot in common with the attacks cited earlier in this piece, similarity does not equate to definitive identification. For anyone to say this is yet another terrorist act by an Islamist extremist, as I am sure many did, where is the proof? The suspect shows no outward sign of ties to Islamist extremism and am at least initially skeptical. Besides, didn’t a rightwing extremist carry out a similar crime in Charlottesville last August?

Maybe the suspect had issues. Maybe was on some kind of substance. Maybe he had just been fired. Maybe his marriage just broke up. Maybe he is mentally disturbed. I have no idea, do you?

When Anders Breivik slaughtered those young people in Norway back in 2011, I labelled it an act of Islamist terrorism when I was pressured to write something in the absence of any real info. I will never make that mistake again and neither should you.

We will learn more in the days and weeks to follow. Once our law enforcement agencies do their work and get help from their partners and international allies we will know more. It is that time we can have the debate whether this was ‘just’ a heinous act of violence or an act of terrorism. Let’s not jump the gun on this.

My condolences to the victims and their loved ones.

Here we go again: mental health and terrorism

What is it about terrorism that people fail to grasp?

I’ll put it as simply as I can: there are individuals (and groups) out there that plan and carry out heinous acts of violence we label as terrorism because they really believe in what they are doing. Whether it is divinely inspired (or mandated) or self-styled legitimate action to right a wrong, some people will engage in these acts out of a sense of justice or to impose on the rest of us what they see as the only way to conduct our lives. There is nothing inherent in any of this that points to mental illness.

We really need to stop leaping to the conclusion that perpetrators are suffering from psychological imbalance just because we don’t understand why they are doing these kinds of attacks!

In this vein, the man accused of running down an Edmonton police officer and four pedestrians a month a half ago has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric assessment based largely, from what I can determine, on concerns that his lawyer has. I could reply cynically by dismissing this as a typical defence lawyer ploy but I won’t. But I will ask a few pertinent questions: is Abdulahi Hasan Sharif’s legal representative a medical expert? Is he qualified to ask for this assessment? Are his ‘significant concerns’ about his client’s mental health worth much? I have no idea but I would have thought that this procedure should be requested by an independent court-appointed expert and not a defence lawyer.

Violent extremists are no more likely to have mental illness than the average population.

The more important point here is what it says about collected wisdom on terrorism. Unfortunately, like many ‘accepted assumptions’, the one that terrorists are all mentally ill is very, very wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Yes, some violent extremists do have mental diseases but, and this may surprise you, they are no more likely to do so than the average population (here is an interesting statistic: studies have shown that their incidence of mental illness falls in with that of the general population in Canada – one in five Canadians according to the Canadian Mental Health Association). This underscores the reality of terrorists: they are part and parcel of all of us and they come from within our general societies: they are not outliers as a rule.

Two other recent cases in our country should be seen in this light. Rehab Dughmosh, a woman accused of attempting to injure/kill employees at a Canadian Tire store last summer, has been found fit to stand trial despite what everyone initially thought. And the legal team for a convicted terrorist in the 2013 VIA passenger train plot, Chiheb Esseghaier, is now asking that he be assessed for schizophrenia in what strikes me as an attempt to overturn his sentence.

Rehab Dughmosh in court, November 2017

What really worries me is our inability to recognise that behaviours and attitudes we see as evidence of mental illness are actually perfectly sane: they’re just different and not what we are used to in Western society. They may not be normative, but they are logically consistent and incredibly similar across thousands of cases. I am referring here to the process of Islamist extremism and violent radicalisation, two phenomena I worked on while at CSIS and which I continue to study into my retirement. For the record I am still learning but I see myself as somewhat knowledgeable about both. The ‘shenanigans’ of Ms. Dughmosh and Mr. Esseghaier in court may strike many as the goings on of those who have lost some of their faculties but they are in truth highly emblematic of very dangerous and severely radicalised Islamist extremists and we ignore that at our peril.

Look, I am not dismissing mental illness

If the accused are indeed incapable of distinguishing right from wrong they cannot, in our system of justice, be found accountable for their crimes (not that this is any relief for their victims). If they are found mentally ill then by all means get them help. But don’t leap to the mental illness conclusion just because their behaviours seem odd and are not consistent with our ways of doing things. Courts, and by that I mean Crown prosecutors, judges and juries, need to learn a lot more about violent extremism and radicalisation to be in a better position to render judgment. And defence lawyers need to accept that some of their clients are terrorists.

– This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 16, 2017.

Violent extremists are no more likely to have mental illness than the average population.

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. borealisrisk@gmail.com

Thank God for incompetent terrorists

Sometimes rocket science IS rocket science and must be practiced by rocket scientists. Luckily, very few people who have nefarious intent are rocket scientists and we should be thankful for that. We have all heard stories about hapless criminals who belong to the ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ and we all have a good laugh.

The hapless criminal is on occasion a terrorist however. Hollywood portrayals like 24 where the bad guys are capable and devious and really, really scary and whom can only be stopped because the counter-terrorism good guys (think Jack Bauer) are more capable are not always reflective of reality (spoiler alert!). Yes, there are some very nasty terrorists who are very good at what they do – 9/11, Mumbai, etc. – but there are also many who are only slightly above incompetent.

Yes, there are some very nasty terrorists who are very good at what they do, but there are also many who are only slightly above incompetent

This is what appears to have happened on September 15th in London where an IED was detonated on a timer on the Tube during rush hour. At least 18 commuters have been injured, some seriously, through a combination of a ‘flash fire’ and the ensuing stampede to get the hell out of the car. Authorities in the UK, including MI5 (the UK CSIS) are still investigating and I am very confident that these excellent services will find out who was behind this heinous act, but they have already said that the damage and casualty count could have been much, much worse. The device didn’t do what it was designed to do, i.e. kill lots of people.

The device didn’t do what it was designed to do, i.e. kill lots of people

I was reminded of the case of Aaron Driver in Strathroy, Ontario a little more than a year ago. He was the convert jihadi on a peace bond who posted a martyrdom video online, somehow built a ‘bomb’, got into a taxi and detonated his device. Fortunately – for us, unfortunately for him I suppose – his bomb was lousy and did little more than singe him: it did not even hurt the cabbie sitting less than a metre away. Mr. Driver found his martyrdom when he was killed by the RCMP on site.

I also read regularly about Taliban and Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan who die when preparing IEDs. Even some who resort to the jihadi weapon of choice these days – knives – sometimes fail as a loser in Paris today lunged at an anti-terror police officer but didn’t achieve anything.

I am not minimising the potential of these failed attacks. Even if mass casualties are not the outcome they do cause fear and terror (hence ‘terror’ism) and the stampede in the Tube is testimony to that. But we have to recognise that the gap between intent and capability is sometimes very large. Lots of terrorist talk the big talk but can only crawl, not walk. We need to stop lionising them and their campaigns to sow fear.

I suppose we should also count our blessings that more professional terrorists appear to be in short supply. This could change of course. In any event, our protectors – CSIS, the RCMP, MI5 – have to take all these threats seriously as they do not have the luxury of dismissing a plot because they assess that the perpetrator is a moron.

Let us hope that the parade of amateurs continues and that terrorists who intend to maim and kill don’t suddenly graduate from jihadi school or that groups like AQ and IS all of sudden attract real rocket scientists in droves. We should be grateful for small mercies.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. He has spoken to audiences about terrorism across Canada and the US and around the world. borealisrisk@gmail.com

Why do we have anti-terrorism laws if we are not going to use them?

I don’t get it. We make a big deal of terrorism these days, too big in my opinion, but we have collectively decided that terrorism is a serious threat (which it is) and that we need to deal with it. Part of our response is making sure organisations like CSIS and the RCMP have enough resources and part is to draft new laws that deal with those that join terrorist groups. 

We have created a ‘terrorist entity’ list that contains groups which it is illegal to join and we have spent the last couple of years agonising about ‘foreign fighters’ and the damage they can do (I even wrote a whole book about that threat – Western Foreign Fighters; the threat to homeland and international security – last year). CSIS tells us that we have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 foreign fighters and that some 60 have come home. These are people we should have a close look at, no?

With all this hype and all these freshly minted laws you would think that the government of Canada is champing at the bit to charge someone, right? Well, you would be wrong some of the time and a current case shows just how badly this is being handled (NB it is also hard and I will get to that).

Current case shows just how badly this is being handled

A Pakistani Canadian who traveled to the land of his ancestors ended up at a university in Lahore where he was exposed to a blatant extremist message (the need to ‘liberate’ Muslim lands) from Lashkar-e-Tayba, a listed terrorist entity in Canada. From there he traveled to Istanbul and made his way to the border with Syria where he deliberately sought to join Islamic State (IS), another listed terrorist entity in Canada. He freely admits all of this. 

While with IS he says he was a member of the Hisbah (their ‘morality police’), witnessed horrific crimes against humanity, including crucifixions and executions, but maintains that he never killed anyone. Sound familiar? I wrote months ago about how when I was at CSIS and we interviewed returning terrorists they all said that they ‘drove the bus’ or ‘served tea’. In other words, they admitted no responsibility for the nastier things terrorist groups do.

If you did make that assumption then you would be wrong

One would assume that a returning foreign fighter who has direct, tangible, acknowledged links to not one but two listed terrorist groups would be arrested upon return. After all, CSIS and the RCMP have been quite explicit that these people pose a very real, albeit nebulous, threat to Canada. If you did make that assumption then you would be wrong.
He has not been arrested, he has not been charged and he is a free man. He claims that he has been told that he does not pose a threat, regrets his time in Syria and is now undergoing ‘deradicalisation’ with the help of a former CSIS/RCMP source that helped disrupt the Toronto 18 back in 2005-2006. Is this the right approach?

Most definitely not. There is so much that is wrong with this that it would take several posts to cover it in the detail required but I will try to summarise it as best I can:

Why have we made it illegal to join a terrorist group then not bother to apply the law when it is obvious that someone has done so?

In many cases we don’t have the intelligence/evidence to lay charges but this is a gift-wrapped case. To not lay charges is a travesty.

No security agency ever tells someone that s/he no longer poses a threat because that is impossible to determine.

The last thing CSIS or the RCMP want is to ignore someone who later commits a terrorist act: it is bad for these agencies and it is bad for Canada.

No one anywhere has any idea if deradicalisation works as there are precisely zero long-term studies on success rates.

For many experts deradicalisation, because of the haphazard way it which it is applied and the charlatans that offer programmes, is rapidly becoming pseudo-science, like homeopathic medicine. I like Mubin Shaikh (the CSIS/RCMP former source) and respect what he did for us back in 2006 but to be honest he has no idea if what he is doing is going to work.

In other instances we do charge people before they go abroad: in fact a case is starting tomorrow in Montreal.

If we are so afraid of the possible repercussions BEFORE they leave how can we not be as fearful AFTER they return with experience, training and exposure to the hate and violence professed by IS? By the way, other countries do treat returnees seriously: Denmark just charged one after he got back from IS.

The man in question may indeed feel remorse and may indeed not pose a threat to Canada. We will, unfortunately, never really know for sure. What we do know is that he committed a clear offence under the Criminal Code and, given his admission, this case should be a ‘slam dunk’. Why on earth he is not being charged is well beyond me.

As an aside no, I am not a ‘throw away the key’ kind of person. But we have to take terrorism seriously. And we have to implement the laws we have taken the time to draft and enact. If we do not, then why bother in the first place?

Canada’s reputation on counter terrorism could suffer because of this. 

First there was the $10.5 payout to ‘child soldier’ (I prefer ‘child terrorist’ personally) to Omar Khadr: yes he met the letter of the definition but NOT the spirit. Now we don’t subject a returning foreign fighter to the law as written. As I wrote at the beginning, I don’t get it.

>> NEXT WEEK : Thank God for incompetent terrorists!

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. borealisrisk@gmail.com

Why we will never ‘eradicate’ terrorism

Scientists have made great progress in eradicating diseases that once maimed or killed millions of people. Think of smallpox. Or polio, which a few years ago was on the verge of disappearance though state instability and war have allowed it to cling to life. The reason why these scourges were defeated (apparently there is a difference between eradication and elimination but that distinction is beyond the scope of this blog) is that efforts at developing vaccines or removing the conditions under which the disease flourished were successful. And we should all be grateful for that.

There is, however, a vast difference between eradicating a disease and eradicating terrorism. The former is the result of a biological organism, the latter is a human-driven social phenomenon. So when I hear a world leader claim that his government has ‘eradicated’ terrorism my skepticism peaks. Recently, both Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the Algerian Minister of the Interior have made such statements (and the Algerian Army has vowed to ‘resoundly defeat terrorism’).

When I hear a world leader claim that his government has ‘eradicated’ terrorism, my skepticism peaks!

In other words, dialogue, negotiations, talks, and compromise have been judged to be insufficient – hence the move to more physical means.

 In addition Malaysia’s new most senior police officer has said it is time to ‘weed out’ terrorism. Here is why I am not so confident that they are correct.

(As a side note it is particularly galling to hear the Saudi king say that his regime has won out over terrorism given that it is precisely his kingdom’s aberrant version of Islam that has fed it for decades).

Terrorism is a tactic whereby a person, or more frequently a group of people or a whole movement, decide that the use of violence to advance some kind of ideological goal is required. These people want change and they have concluded that the only way to achieve this change is through the use of force. In other words, dialogue, negotiations, talks, and compromise have been judged to be insufficient – hence the move to more physical means. I find that the founder of Al Qaeda, Abdallah Azzam, summed up this view very well when he proclaimed “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues.” It is really hard after all to defeat a tactic.

Even if, sorry Mr. Azzam, negotiations with terrorist groups are sometimes possible – we have seen for example what are very promising peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC – they are hard and they take time. As a non-state actor, a terrorist group is a difficult negotiating partner that can make demands a state cannot. And of course a given group can back out of a deal if it believes that the conditions have not been met or ‘rogue’ elements decide to return to violent means.

Secondly, as a tactic, terrorism is a tool available to a wide variety of ideological currents. We focus a lot on Islamist extremism these days, and for good reason, but as my friend Jamie Bartlett recently wrote in Foreign Policy the next big threat may come from the far left/green movement. If, as I expect, the jihadis aren’t going away any time soon (and a senior former UK intelligence official agrees with me), we may have to deal with multiple serious terrorist challenges simultaneously. That will tax limited resources.

In the end, a given terrorist group can be (temporarily) defeated. But terrorism cannot. We cannot eliminate a tactic that is used by such a wide variety of groups of people for the simple reason that it is simple, works, and grabs our attention (Brian Jenkins’ notion of terrorism as theatre). We generally date the genesis of terrorism to the latter half of the 19th century during the anarchist wave (using US political scientist David Rapoport’s ‘wave theory’ of terrorism idea) but it has probably been around since the creation of societies (rather than bands of hunter-gatherers). And it is here to stay.

Declaring victory against terrorism also suffers from the challenge of waging war against common nouns (think drugs, crime, etc.). These wars never end because one of the protagonists, unlike a state, cannot surrender: did you ever hear a bag of heroin say “Don’t shoot! I give up!”? So these proclamations are made for political and propaganda reasons but they really should be taken with a grain of salt.

This is not a defeatist position, it is a real one. And the sooner we can stop dreaming of unlikely goals the better off we will be.

>> NEXT WEDNESDAY: Why do we have anti-terrorism laws if are not going to use them?

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. borealisrisk@gmail.com

The cutting edge of terrorism

When most people think about terrorism and terrorists they probably go immediately to explosives, suicide vests, firearms and, increasingly, the use of cars and vans. Attacks in which these ‘tools’ are used are ubiquitous and have become a scourge in far too many countries. Nary a day goes by without news about an incident somewhere in which one of these methods has been used. Whether it is a suicide bomb in Kabul or a Boko Haram ambush in Nigeria’s northern Borno State or the recent van atrocity in Barcelona it seems that the only thing new on any given occasion is the particular combination of city and MO.

We have also seen a trend in the use of knives of late. Attacks that have been executed with sharp instruments have been seen in Turku (Finland), London (UK) and, if we want to go back a few years, in Woolich (UK) – a combined vehicle/machete killing. There has been quite a bit of commentary on why knives have been so prevalent and these tend to reduce to availability. After all, who does not have a drawerful of sharp implements at home? Why make things complicated (i.e. bomb construction) when you don’t have to? While it is probably true that this kind of operation results in fewer casualties (dead and wounded) it is still terrifying.

This was not just an ordinary knife attack: the terrorist tried to kill and maim with a four-foot SWORD.

I think there is more to this development than is obvious at first blush. In the wake of an attack outside Buckingham Palace, I’d like to draw your attention to an important underlying theme. For the incident at the home of the UK monarch was not just an ordinary knife attack: the terrorist tried to kill and maim with a four-foot SWORD.

Now sometimes a sword is just a sword and is used because it is there. For instance last week in Taiwan a man attacked a guard at the Presidential Palace with a samurai sword he had just stolen from a museum ‘to express his political views’ (surely there are other ways to do this). This may be symbolic but it is well beyond my expertise to make a comment about the imagery of the samurai.

But swords are very meaningful tokens for jihadis. They hearken back to the ‘glory days’ of Islam that these extremists think they are ushering back, when Muslim warriors created a vast empire from India to Spain in less than a century. Swords were, and still are, the weapon of choice for a ‘real man’. A common kunya (nom de guerre) among Islamist extremists is Saif ulislam – the sword of Islam.

This evocation of a long dormant past probably also explains why the Saudi government, the self-appointed guardian of ‘authentic Islam’, uses swords in Riyadh’s ‘Chop-chop Square’ for public executions. There is also still a call for wannabe mujahedin to train in the techniques of classic Islamic warfare: horseback riding, swimming and the ability to use a sword.

For a terrorist to wield a sword in an attack may strike some as anachronistic but you have to admit seeing someone yell ‘Allahu Akbar‘ while slashing people with a metre-long blade would be a pretty harrowing experience. Not to mention the horrific injuries a sword does to its victims. I am no armament expert but I have read enough accounts of medieval battles to know that being stabbed and hewn with a long blade is not a pleasant experience.

The downside is that it takes some skill to use a sword and I can’t imagine that there are many that are adept at it. As I noted above this would reduce the number of serious injuries and deaths. Furthermore, first responders who arrive on the scene are equipped with vastly superior weapons with which to neutralise the terrorist. As they say, ‘never bring a sword to a gun fight’.

As they say, ‘‘never bring a sword to a gun fight’’!

It will be interesting to see if we come across more sword attacks, copycat or otherwise. One thing I do know is that terrorists want to re-create an imagined history. What better way to do it than with historical methods? Yes, they will use more modern instruments – TATP, AK-47s, internal combustion engines – but for some there is the romanticism of the tried and true.

Phil Gurski

President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. Phil worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. borealisrisk@gmail.com

The difference between mental illness and radicalisation

When we come across a phenomenon that is new and strange to us we often struggle to gain an understanding. What we are seeing or hearing is beyond our realm of experience and hence our ‘comfort zone’, and we don’t have a readily available framework to make sense of it. As a result we have a tendency to do one of two things:
  1. Throw up our hands and say ‘I don’t get it and I won’t get it’, or
  2. Use what is familiar to us and cram the new event into that box
  3. (I suppose there should be 3, Learn what is really going on)

I think that 2 is what happens often when we are faced with cases of violent radicalisation. A really good example of this is what is transpiring in a Toronto courtroom these days in the matter of R. vs. Rehab Dughmosh. To bring you up to speed on this proceeding, Ms. Dughmosh attacked staff at a Canadian Tire back in June with a golf club and a knife and claims that she is with Islamic State. Since her arrest and incarceration pending trial she has refused to leave her cell or cooperate at all with the judicial process and refuses to be represented by a lawyer.

Some are questioning whether her rejection of a normal court appearance may indicate an underlying mental health problem (see the National Post’s Christie Blatchford’s excellent report on the latest shenanigans of Ms. Dughmosh here). After all many would say that her words are just ‘crazy talk’ (no offence intended towards the mentally ill – this is a common phrase).

Rehab Dughmosh, pictured in a previous court appearance, said in court Wednesday, “I will always be a supporter of the Islamic State.”

Radicalization or mental illness?

My fear is that we see radicalization and ‘bizarre’ statements as nothing more than mental illnessMs. Dughmosh may indeed be mentally ill – I am not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist so this is well beyond my expertise. But, based on the few words she has said so far I do know one thing for certain: she is heavily radicalized and her behavior is 100% consistent with Islamist extremist ideology. Whether or not there are additional mental health issues is incidental as far as I am concerned (although I clearly recognize that these would have a significant effect on whether or not she stands trial).

My fear, though, is that we see radicalization and ‘bizarre’ statements as nothing more than mental illness and in this we would be very, very wrong.

According to what we know, Ms. Dughmosh traveled to Turkey to join IS but was ‘intercepted’ and sent back to Canada.

That in and of itself suggests that she had made a choice to hook up with a listed terrorist entity (interestingly she has been charged with terrorist offences in addition to assault and other crimes, showing that the Crown sees enough to make a case under the terrorism provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code).

rehab
An Arab interpreter, Justice of the Peace Alice Napier, Rehab Dughmosh and Crown attorney Candice Suter at College Park court.
Terrorists opt for what is not only superior in their minds but they also cast aspersion on what democracy stands forThere are other things that make me certain that she is indeed radicalized and not necessarily mentally ill. She has refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court and said “I do not worship what you worship”. This may strike some as merely an obvious religious statement: she is Muslim and most of the people in court are probably not (in fact she calls them ‘kuffar‘ – infidels). But there is much more than that going on here. Ms. Dughmosh is telling us that she does think that our laws and our system of governance apply to her. That is why she has denounced ‘any law that is not Allah’s’.

Islamist extremists reject civil law and democracy for a simple reason: they violate what they believe in. To an extremist the only real law is that which is found in the Quran and is hence divine. Everything we do, from elections to the drafting of legislation, is human-based and hence inferior. Terrorists opt for what is not only superior in their minds but they also cast aspersion on what democracy stands for.

Classic sign of radicalization

Actually, this visceral hatred for our way of doing things is a classic sign of radicalization and Ms. Dughmosh is demonstrating it in spades.

This case recalls that of Chiheb Esseghaier, the convicted terrorist in the 2013 VIA Rail plot. He made very similar outbursts during his trial. There are those that are trying to overturn his sentence as they are convinced he is schizophrenic. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

In the end though, Mr. Esseghaier was heavily radicalized. So is Ms. Dughmosh at first blush. There may be some underlying psychopathology but that must not eliminate the fact that both individuals embraced a hateful, violent ideology and sought to kill on that basis. It is not that Ms. Dughmosh ‘does not understand’ the court process: she understands it very well and rejects it as beneath her.

We must not reduce radicalization to mental illness from the outset. The two may co-exist but they are VERY different psychological phenomena. We ignore that at our peril.

Psychological resilience in U.S. military veterans

Although many cross-sectional studies have examined the correlates of psychological resilience in U.S. military veterans, few longitudinal studies have identified long-term predictors of resilience in this population.

The current prospective cohort study utilized data from a nationally representative sample of 2157 U.S. military veterans who completed web-based surveys in two waves (2011 and 2013) as part of the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study (NHRVS). Cluster analysis of cumulative lifetime exposure to potentially traumatic events and Wave 2 measures of current symptoms of post traumatic stress, major depressive, and generalized anxiety disorders was performed to characterize different profiles of current trauma-related psychological symptoms.

Download Psychological resilience in U.S. military veterans: A 2-year, nationally representative prospective cohort study

Different profiles were compared with respect to sociodemographic, clinical, and psychosocial characteristics. A three-group cluster analysis revealed a Control group with low lifetime trauma exposure and low current psychological distress (59.5%), a Resilient group with high lifetime trauma and low current distress (27.4%), and a Distressed group with both high trauma exposure and current distress symptoms (13.1%).

These results suggest that the majority of trauma-exposed veterans (67.7%) are psychologically resilient. Compared with the Distressed group, the Resilient group was younger, more likely to be Caucasian, and scored lower on measures of physical health difficulties, past psychiatric history, and substance abuse. Higher levels of emotional stability, extraversion, dispositional gratitude, purpose in life, and altruism, and lower levels of openness to experiences predicted resilient status.

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Prevention and treatment efforts designed to enhance modifiable factors such as gratitude, sense of purpose, and altruism may help promote resilience in highly trauma-exposed veterans.

Source: ScienceDirect

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