Do we apply the label ‘terrorism’ inconsistently?

A man drives a van into a crowd of Muslims near a mosque in London, possibly killing one (although there are reports that a person had earlier suffered a heart attack on that street) and wounding ten.  Others in the vicinity pull the man out of the van and hold him until police arrive.  There are reports that the man yelled ‘I want to kill all Muslims’ at some point.  UK Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have both immediately called the incident a terrorist attack.

As a former intelligence analyst my first question is: how do they know that?

I accept that there may be information to which I have no access (i.e. intelligence).  Perhaps MI5 or the Metropolitan Police had the perpetrator on their ‘radar’.  Perhaps he had made postings online talking about an attack. Perhaps he was a known ______ (right-wing extremist, neo-Nazi, Islamophobe…).  Perhaps a human source told authorities about him.  Perhaps.  Politicians can say what they want for whatever reasons they want and there is, after all, something to be said for saying what people want to hear.

What we do know at the time of writing is that a 48-year old white man appears to have deliberately steered a rented van into a crowd.  That is it.  Oh, and one report of something he said.  Is this enough to call this a terrorist act?  Not in my books.

Coincidentally, a car just crashed into a police van on the Champs Elysees in Paris and exploded.  Is that a terrorist attack?  I don’t know and I doubt whether you do either.  We are becoming too quick to label every act of violence that looks even remotely like an act of terrorism as if it can be nothing but an act of terrorism.  Before any facts are in or there are too few facts upon which to make a judgment.  That is not just a cardinal sin in analysis it is unnecessary.

There are some that will argue that Western society is all too quick to call violence terrorism if it involves a Muslim actor and refrain from doing so if the perpetrator is ‘white’.  There is some truth to that.  Nevertheless committing a second error does not erase the first  error.  We need to allow the facts to be collected, to allow the police to do a proper investigation.

I know that I am tilting at windmills in asking for this in an era of instantaneous news and ‘instant analysis’.  I cannot win this fight,  and yet I for one will be consistent in calling something terrorism only where the facts merit such a label.  And not before.    I am no politician, just an ex-intelligence analyst for whom accuracy matters.

The London incident strikes me, as of right now, as a hate crime – maybe.  The Paris incident may be an unfortunate accident.  Both may turn out to be terrorism and I may be wrong.  That’s ok with me as I value analytic rigour to being the first off the mark.  Besides, there are enough people out there far more  interested in the latter than the former.  I cede that terrain to them and  have no intention of changing the way I operate.  This may upset some who read my blog.  Sorry  about that (how Canadian of me).

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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