Are we really seeing a rise in terrorist attacks on religious sites?

We seem to collectively have short memories. When something bad happens, or better yet several bad somethings occur over a short time span, we immediately declare this to be a new trend, as if these incidents have never been seen before. This, of course, is not usually correct. As the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us: “there is no new thing under the sun.”

I thought of this lately in the wake of a slew of terrorist attacks that targeted houses of worship: the slaughter at two mosques in Christchurch, NZ in March; the massacre at Catholic churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday; and an attack on a synagogue in Poway, California after that. In all several hundred people were killed and even more wounded. The incidents led to all kinds of analysis suggesting that this was a new direction for terrorist groups, with some hypothesising that as some targets become ‘hardened’ terrorists will turn their focus to ‘softer’ ones. Mosques, churches and synagogues were clearly placed in the latter category. As a further ‘confirmation’ of this new development, most recently churches in Burkina Faso in Central Africa have been targeted by jihadis: armed attackers killed five worshipers and a pastor in the first attack by armed groups on a church on April 29 and gunmen killed at least six Christians in a Catholic church in the Burkinabe town of Dablo yesterday. So of course these institutions are on the hit list!

But was this theory true? What was it based on? Did it really reflect a shift in whom terrorists would seek to kill and maim? Not really. While all terrorist attacks are horrific and we may feel an extra dollop of aversion and disgust at those groups who zero in on people at worship, these violent extremist actors did not suddenly ‘discover’ that religious institutions existed and would make great focuses for their efforts. Here is a short historical synopsis:

My point is that terrorists often threaten to wreak havoc and mayhem in all kinds of places. Any cursory glance at attacks over the past few years would show that the gamut of locations for plots run from pedestrian malls, to concerts, to Christmas markets, to schools…the list goes on and on and on. These actors have an infinite number of targets and the good guys have a finite number of resources to thwart them. It is impossible to guard them all, to make all venues ‘hardened’, and as a result difficult choices need to be made. As not everything can be protected we have to make decisions. I still think that the selection of places to receive special attention should be dictated by intelligence, but then again I am biased.

In response to this apparent trend, some faiths are ramping up their own security, hiring private agencies to post a guard here and there. Does that work? I have no idea but some presence is undoubtedly better than none. What worries me, however, is the likely continued practice to shift resources to yesterday’s targeted place, rather than tomorrow’s. In this light, can someone please tell me why we are still taking off shoes at airport security (in response to the 2002 ‘Shoebomber’)??

Jumping to conclusions and overanalysing is a bad as underanalysing (remember when ‘lone actors’ were all the rage??). Perhaps seeing an armed presence at your local house of prayer is the new normal: I for one hope it is not. We need to recognise that we cannot foil every plot every time and that we do not need a hyper-armed society to deal with a terrorist threat that remains minimal in most places most of the time. After all, no one should have to pray in the shadow of a guy with an automatic weapon.

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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