Making CSIS ‘smarter’ at counter-terrorism, easier said than done!

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the very good when it comes to Canadian counter terrorism.

This article appeared in The Hill Times on August 19, 2019.

They say that no matter what you do you can always do it better. Even if you do a really good job at something there is inevitably room for improvement as rarely are things completed to the nth degree.

Then again, they also say that the perfect is the enemy of the very, very good, meaning that sometimes the search for the ultimate accomplishment comes at such a high cost with respect to time and resources that it is in fact counterproductive.

Apparently Voltaire came up with that advice and he was a pretty smart guy!

It remains an open question, however, how much effort should be put into making changes to what we do so that our deeds are as good as possible. Into this mix Kent Roach, a Toronto law professor, wrote recently in the Globe and Mail that “we need to be smarter in countering terrorism than we have been in the past.” He cites the ‘entrapment’ case against John Nuttall and Amanda Korody back in 2013 (more on that in a bit), the absence of terrorism charges against Alexandre Bissonnette for his attack on a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 and a study by the University of Calgary’s Michael Nesbitt that no terrorism prosecutions in Canada have been brought against those on the far right. Hence his advice that our protectors – i.e. CSIS and the RCMP – need to get ‘smarter’ at what they do for us.

I have nothing against Mr. Roach as I barely know him. We did present, separately, at a conference in Toronto in 2018, the day after the Danforth shootings, which turned out not to be terrorist in nature. At the time he struck me as a decent Canadian.

Still, there are aspects to his recommendations that rub me the wrong way. First and foremost, nowhere in his short piece does he acknowledge that CSIS and the RCMP foiled several Islamist extremist plots that could have killed and injured hundreds if not thousands (the Toronto 18 had three tonnes of fertiliser they planned to make into truck bombs and detonate in downtown Toronto). They certainly seemed to me to be pretty ‘smart’ in those investigations. Secondly, while he accurately notes that the Nuttall-Korody case was thrown out by the judge (the jury had found them guilty of plans to commit terrorism) he fails to note that it was actually a well-planned counter terrorism investigation that foiled a perhaps hapless but determined couple. I have a stake in this as not only did I work the investigation but I also provided assistance to the Crown in their prosecution.

To my biased mind the judge blew it (this happens) and the RCMP should have been congratulated rather than excoriated for keeping tabs on the wannabe jihadis.

He does raise good points like the need to “denounce both white supremacy and religious perversion that attempts to justify the killing of apostates” although he adds a strange admonition to not “target the innocent”: I am not sure what he is implying by that. What he does not say is how to do this, i.e. how to decide how many resources to devote to the various forms of terrorism. As I have said on many occasions this is not as easy as it sounds and Mr. Roach acknowledges that counter terrorism is “arduous and complex”.

In the end I think what bothers me most is that once again someone with no counter terrorism practitioner experience is telling CSIS what to do. As I noted earlier, Mr. Roach has a stellar legal background but no operational experience, or at least none to my knowledge. He is of course free to offer his views and his should be accorded some weight in light of his accomplishments. Similarly, CSIS has every right to say thanks but no thanks.

The national security dialogue is an important one and it is imperative that we have multiple voices. It is equally important that agencies with extraordinary legal authorities be held to close scrutiny, and where warranted, criticism. Nevertheless, it is also important to let the professionals do the jobs they are trained for and for which we employ them. That’s why we have organisations like CSIS in the first place.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and the author of five books on terrorism.