When to call a violent attack a terrorist incident

The US has suffered through two scary incidents in the past 24 hours.  Fortunately, as of the time of writing, no one has died in either event.  A man dressed in a security uniform knifed 8 people at a mall in central Minnesota.  There are reports he talked of Allah and asked at least one victim if he was Muslim.  In the second instance, a bomb went off in lower Manhattan, injuring 29.

In the latter incident, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the attack “intentional” but added quickly that it was not terrorist in nature (this of course did not stop US Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump from saying immediately that it was terrorism and blaming “immigration”).  The police chief in St Cloud, Minnesota said that there was nothing to suggest that the attempted murders in the mall were terrorist acts, adding that his force would work diligently to determine motive.  Not surprisingly, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the latter attack, saying that it had been carried out by a “soldier of Islam”.

Events of this nature are always a conundrum for governments and law enforcement agencies, at least at the beginning.  The challenge comes in what to tell the public about the incident knowing that what you really know is in flux and is most likely incomplete or wrong in parts.  And all this in a frenzied social media/mass media maelstrom where people want to be told exactly what just happened, what it means and what the implications are for tomorrow.  If officials choose caution over speed, there are far too many experts – real and otherwise – that are very keen to feed the beast.

And yet there are very good reasons for officialdom to tread carefully in the wake of violent acts that may or not be of a terrorist bent:

  • saying so and finding out later that you were in error makes you apologise in an awkward way
  • emotionally reacting to injury and death by expressing the belief that it was categorically terrorist in nature can lead to panic and concomitant acts of violence against innocent people who “look like” the terrorists, as well as vigilante justice.
  • why do the propaganda job of the terrorists for them?  They are inevitably going to claim responsibility anyway: at least make them go through the motions

This is a battle that our elected officials and those who are sworn to keep us safe cannot win.  The immediacy of today’s news demands an answer right away, irrespective of its accuracy.   Governments are wise to be patient and let the masses gorge on tidbits of information before releasing an official statement.

What governments should NOT do however is say from the outset that a given act is NOT terrorism.  The need for accuracy goes both ways: if you want to be absolutely sure that there is solid, reliable information pointing to terrorism before you say so, should you also not be careful that you have equally good information indicating who was behind the attack before you say  it can’t be terrorism?  It is hard to imagine how an agency could eliminate the possibility of a terrorist motive in the immediate wake of a bomb, unless of course it had intelligence beforehand, in which case it should provide some account of this.

It also must be said: statements like that of Donald Trump do not help.  I know that Mr. Trump is all about attention (his mannerisms remind of Zaphod Beeblebrox from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who famously said “If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now”) and that this is just politicking – and he may turn out to be right in the end – but irresponsible words lead to irresponsible, and potentially dangerous, actions.

We are having a hard enough time coming up with an effective counter terrorism strategy.  Flying off the handle is not useful.  Terrorism is real and scary as it is: we don’t need to make it worse.

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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