A better way to write a terrorist threat report

As it is wont to do, the federal Department of Public Safety has just issued its annual “Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada”.  This year’s edition contains statements such as:

  • The main terrorist threat to Canada continues to stem from violent extremists inspired by terrorist groups, such as Daesh and al-Qaida
  • Daesh, and to a lesser extent, al-Qaida, continue to encourage followers abroad to employ simple attacks such as the use of knives or vehicles to inflict harm on the civilian population.
  • Right-wing extremism is also a growing concern in Canada.

Much of the rest of the report is nothing more than boilerplate references to the use of the Internet by terrorists and a cursory summary on what is happening in the rest of the world.  There is also a large section on what Canada is doing internationally and domestically to prevent radicalisation to violence, the feedstock to terrorism.

At the risk of sounding cruel, the report looks to me like it was written by an undergraduate student (full disclosure: I worked in the National Security Directorate as a policy analyst from October 2013 until my retirement in April 2015 – a bad fit as I was an intelligence analyst, not a policy one).  This report is being crafted by the wrong people in the wrong department: more on that in a bit.

Public Safety is an odd Canadian government department.  It serves as an umbrella agency for organisations that have their own well-developed mandates (CBSA, Correctional Services Canada, CSIS and the RCMP) and, in some cases (CSIS, RCMP) their own legislation. As a result you have a situation where civil servants often with next to no background in national security are part of a department that is trying to engage with professional  intelligence and/or law enforcement personnel on how to carry out their functions.  It was my experience that those agencies did not relish being advised by the department.  CSIS and the others will carry out their duties  in line with what their directives tell them and do not have the time to get the OK from the centre.  That is exactly how these agencies must operate in order to keep us safe.

But back to the annual report.  I know that there are some very good analysts at Public Safety Canada (some are my friends although they may be ex-friends once they read this) but there are very few who actually worked in law enforcement or security intelligence.  I suppose that in theory a good writer can come up with a good piece of work if given the right input, but ideally you want a subject matter expert to weigh  in on these issues.  For that to happen you need an intelligence analyst who has both the knowledge and the expertise to draft a report, based on classified information but which must be written in an unclassified manner, to inform Canadians on the threat level.  The best-placed people to do so are not found in Public Safety: they are in CSIS and ITAC (the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre – located within CSIS).  This paper and future ones should have been written by veteran intelligence analysts within ITAC, vetted to make sure that nothing sensitive was disclosed, and received cursory sign-off by the department.

In addition, a true threat report would have not wasted time on counter radicalisation – that is a very important subject but belongs in a separate paper (which would have been a perfect one for Public Safety to write).  A relevant report would have provided Canadians with an assessment on whether the threat is getting better or worse, based on ongoing investigations as well as what has changed over the years.   While what is happening overseas does affect what could happen here, a much more useful document would have provided a general overview of what our protectors are seeing domestically (without, of course, compromising continuing efforts).

In the end I do not know what this report purports to be and how others will use it.  I suppose it is a rare insight into a sensitive topic (terrorism) in Canada that the average Canadian rarely gets access to, even if it is not very good.  If the government wants to put taxpayers and citizens into the loop it has to do much better than this and it can do so only if it has the right department – and the right people – to do it.  This effort does not achieve the stated goal.


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.

One reply on “A better way to write a terrorist threat report”

Hi Phil
You are right. The report is, as an antipodean friend of mine is wont to say, “a dog’s breakfast”. The title (purporting to be about threat – pp. 5-11 – 6 pages) does not really describe what it is: reassuring us that the government is on the job and keeping us safe (pp. 12-21 – 9 pages). And some of the language reveals conceptual muddle. The two Canadians (p.11) whom Aby Sayyaf Group (ASG) kidnapped, were not “executed” as the report claimed. They were murdered. Unlawfully killed. To say they were “executed” is to suggest ASG did was the result of a legal process. It was not. ASG are murderers, thieves, terrorists, criminals, and so on.
Moreover the language pussy-foots around the problems: the emergence of violent nationalist and violent right wing actors but mainly salafi-Islamists, some of whom believe and are willing to use violence to advance their ideology – and who believe their ideology is the only authentic expression of Islam. How can we defend against such ideologies if we do not accurately describe them?

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