A reality check on preventing terrorism

It has been two days or so since the massacre in New Zealand and I have already lost track of how many articles, op-Ed’s, tweets, FaceBook postings and other material have called for more action to prevent acts of that nature. Everyone seems to think that governments, and especially security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, have come up woefully short on this front. The usual complaint is that we have spent far too much time looking at Islamist extremism and as a consequence tragedies like the one in Christchurch were allowed to succeed.

I will not repeat my frequent response that, at least in my opinion, the resources have been allocated more or less correctly, as I am sure I have flogged that idea to death. At the same time I have often written that yes we need to devote more resources to RW terrorism, even if figuring out where to get those resources is not an easy calculus.

What I want to focus on today is my belief that even if we had shifted heaven and earth years ago and made white nationalist/anti-immigrant/neo-Nazi violent extremism priority #1 there is no guarantee that events like the one in New Zealand would have been, or even could have been, prevented. Allow me to explain why, using what I know best: jihadi terrorism.

In the post 9/11 period most nations’ cops and spies have ramped up investigations on homegrown and foreign cells planning attacks in the name of Allah for what I hope should be obvious reasons . As a result, many lives have been spared thanks to the work of these men and women who toil as protectors. To give just one small bit of proof, thanks to the efforts of CSIS, the RCMP and their partners, many Canadians did not die at the hands of the ‘Toronto 18’ or in other dastardly plots planned by local jihadis. And thank these people we indeed should.

But even with this intense operational focus, some attacks have succeeded. Here in Canada those have been mercifully small: two deaths and a handful of injuries in almost two decades. Abroad the numbers of casualties are more disastrous. Despite the efforts of local security intelligence and law enforcement agencies, major attacks have occurred:

  • November 2015 Paris: 130 dead
  • London July 2005: 52 dead
  • Barcelona August 2017: 13 dead
  • Orlando June 2016: 49 dead
  • Madrid March 2004: 193 dead.

I hope you get the picture. Even with the thousands of dedicated resources some terrorists end up killing innocent people. So, where is the guarantee that, had we pulled out all the stops on the far right, Christchurch or even Quebec City (January 2017 shooting in a mosque) – or the multiple synagogue attacks by white supremacists/anti-Semites – would have been interdicted? There is none. Again, this is not an argument that we should not be doing more to identify and neutralise these acts before they occur. But you cannot follow everyone or monitor every hateful diatribe on the Internet.

And there’s more. If we had shifted our attention from jihadis to white trash would we have thwarted as many of the former attacks? What would our publics have said if more of the those came to pass? Would they be screaming for more attention to the Islamist extremists?

And still more. In the specific case of New Zealand there has been criticism over that country’s obsession with jihadis even if that particular threat is pretty low, relatively speaking. But is the far right threat appreciably higher? I have visited NZ many times and have friends in their security services and my impression is that the overall extremist violence scenario in that island country is modest at best. Moreover, the Kiwi agencies tasked with monitoring these threats are small and hence have limited resources.

The bottom line is that there are way too many bad guys to look at and way too few resources to do so. The demands on our protectors are many. And it is just not a coin flip between Islamist extremism and the far right as we have to throw cyber terrorism, foreign espionage and foreign interference into the mix. Furthermore, the expectation – nay, the demand – is that these agencies will always get it right, which is neither fair nor reasonable.

I do not want to sound harsh or callous but we have to accept that attacks on occasion will succeed, regardless of the best efforts of those tasked with keeping us safe. They will foil most attacks but not all. In the case of the latter we have to do our utmost to recover, care for the wounded and the mourners and remind ourselves that these heinous crimes are still rare events. Failing to realise this will lead to panic, bad decisions and future tragedies. Even in a time of emotional distress we need to act rationally.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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