What can we really predict vis-a-vis terrorism?

I have learned a few things over the years in dealing with both counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE).  First is that both fields have attracted a lot of interest from a variety of actors: politicians, academics, and self-styled experts.  Secondly is that everyone thinks he or she has THE answer to either preventing terrorism (or predicting who becomes a terrorist in the first place) or managing it once it happens.  Lastly, most of this is hubris and wildly inaccurate.

Whether it is big data or profiling or whatever a new solution seems to come to the fore every so often.  I have seen models and paradigms and explanations galore and while most have a nugget or two that is worth paying attention to none are perfect and some are patently contradicted by data.  For instance, one risk assessment model states that a jailed terrorist stands a better chance of abandoning violent extremism and rejoining society if he has a stable relationship (wife/family).  This sounds great until you look at the data and see that, in Canada at least, a lot of the people we have convicted as terrorists in fact come from such a background.

There was an interesting take on prediction in the Sunday edition of the New York Times with respect to the rise (and fall?) of populism.  In a nice piece of analysis, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub noted that trying to account for voting intentions (using the recent UK election as an example) is fraught with challenges as  ‘few systems in the world are more complex than the one between a person’s ears’.  What applies to voters applies to terrorists. We are not so smart as to have any way to determine intent down to the level of the individual and we should admit as much.  MI5 noted that one of the London Bridge terrorists had indeed crossed its radar but as there was  no intelligence suggesting he was in attack planning mode they were forced, due to competing priorities and constrained (and overworked) resources, to move on to others who in their analysis posed a greater threat.  That is life at the counter terrorism coalface folks.

The same goes for the other end of the terrorist spectrum, i.e. trying to figure out whether a convicted extremist will re-offend if released.   Here too, prediction is a fool’s errand.  One tool that has been used in a rehabilitative framework is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) wherein prisoners are taught to recognise the triggers – people, places and things – that led them in part to offend in the first instance and hence to avoid those elements when they get out.

With respect to terrorism this makes sense, to a point.  We know (or should know by now) that self-radicalisation is a myth and that terrorists are created (not born) out of their social environments. If the environment is conducive to violent extremist ideology and action, once removed from that environment there is a chance that a terrorist who has completed his sentence may not re-engage.  It stands to reason.  But the problem here is that the individual will have changed his overt, tangible behaviour and not necessarily the underlying psychological state that contributed to the terrorist action.  It is true that there may also be a shift in mindset or even a complete rejection of the ideas that were violent, but this is much harder to assess.  In the end, re-engagement sans deradicalisation is a distinct possibility.

I am calling on scholars and experts to continue their valuable work but to exercise humility when making claims for that work.  We do not need more grandiose boasting of accomplishments and certainly not more conviction that the terrorism problem is but one more study away from resolution.

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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