A rare look at what keeps CSIS up at night

We all know why CSIS is not an open book but when it does give us a peek behind the curtain we do learn a lot.

This contribution was published in The Hill Times on June 04, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — None of us should be surprised that security intelligence services are not open books. After all, the UK has its British Secret Intelligence Service (BSIS or MI6 – yes, where James Bond worked). What kind of ‘secret’ intelligence agency does not have secrets?

And yet many such agencies do issue annual reports, sometimes required by law, or make the odd comment to the media. When this happens it is usually a big deal and everyone scurries about to read and analyse what was said and speculate on what was REALLY said.

In Canada we have two such organisations, CSIS and CSE (NB I worked for both over 32 years). The latter rarely pops its head out – it NEVER did when I worked there from 1983 to 2000. Heck, when I joined CSE it did not even exist, or at least not officially! That has changed, largely because of that outfit’s cyber centre and expertise in that regard, and hence Canadians hear a little more of what goes on amongst our signals intelligence spies.

CSIS has been much more open and one of its regular vehicles is its annual report. We just got a look at the 2019 version and it has some interesting tidbits. I’d like to weigh in on some that touch on terrorism.

None of us should be surprised that security intelligence services are not open books. What kind of ‘secret’ intelligence agency does not have secrets?

CSIS director David Vigneault, pictured on May 13, 2019, at the House Public Safety and National Security Committee meeting on the Hill.

CSIS did a curious thing to my mind

In his opening remarks Director Vigneault notes that in 2019 CSIS turned 35. 35! I remember when it was born: how old does that make me? (answer: old). I found it interesting that he elected to refer first to terrorism as a threat before moving on to foreign spying/interference and election protection (that last one is new to me: there was no such effort when I was there). As a counter terrorism analyst I am of course biased, but the placement of that particular menace should tell us something with respect to the Service’s investigative priorities.

Then CSIS did a curious thing to my mind. In a section entitled ‘terminology – words matter’ – it chose to expand on the three kinds of terrorism under the Canadian Criminal Code (Section 83.01) into religious, political and ideological circles. The first should be obvious and is directed largely, but not exclusively, at Islamist extremism, which still occupies the top spot in numbers of actors and threats. The political definition is a little odd to my mind: ‘adherents focus on elements of self-determination or representations rather than concepts of racial or ethnic supremacy’. What groups fit here? Any ideas?

Then CSIS described what it calls “Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism (IMVE)” which is “often driven by a range of grievances and ideas from across the traditional ideological spectrum. The resulting worldview consists of a personalized narrative which centres on an extremist’s willingness to incite, enable and or mobilize to violence. Extremists draw inspiration from a variety of sources including books, images, lectures, music, online discussions, videos and conversations.”

In all I am grateful that CSIS continues to issue annual public reports since Canadians deserve to know a bit about what the agency is up to.

Anything but helpful

This is badly worded as it encompasses much of what we see in the other two categories (the IMVE types are not the only ones to draw ‘inspiration’ from images and videos – have you ever seen ISIS snuff tapes?). For the life of me I cannot fathom why this was done as it is anything but helpful. I smell political interference but I have no proof that such took place.

CSIS then goes on about violent misogyny and incels (involuntary celibates) as terrorism, despite the fact that there is no consensus on that matter. I have talked to dozens of people – practitioners, academics, journalists, etc. – over the past few weeks and I have received a wide range of views on this issue. That this text came out the very same day the Crown elected to raise charges on a young offender who killed a woman in Toronto in February of this year from first degree murder to terrorism is, hmm, interesting to say the least.

On ‘returning foreign fighters’ CSIS claims it and its community partners are ‘well organised’ to manage the threat. I sure hope so as these characters have carried out mass casualty attacks in many countries around the world.

In all I am grateful that CSIS continues to issue annual public reports since Canadians deserve to know a bit about what the agency is up to. And while I may disagree with how it chose to portray terrorism I do support their contribution to a discussion on this phenomenon. CSIS demonstrated once again that it, not me nor Canadian academics, is the country’s leading source of expertise on terrorism. And we can be thankful that they are standing on guard for thee, er I mean us.

Phil Gurski

2 thoughts on “A rare look at what keeps CSIS up at night

  1. Hello,

    I loved reading this enriched article.

    I wish I can learn more about you and all your life experiences.

    Also, where can I buy/read your books ?
    Terrorism is an aspect of life that intrigues me and hopefully one day I’ll work for an organization that defeats national and international terrorism.

    Kindly get back to me,

    Massad Melanie

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