Contrary to accepted wisdom, terrorism CAN be detected early enough to prevent

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on July 30, 2018

In the wake of an attack, whether it be terrorist in nature or a mass shooting/stabbing/vehicle ramming incident, we often read comments and statements such as the following:

  • no one saw this coming
  • it was completely unpredictable (and by extension unpreventable)
  • who would have thought THAT person would have done such a thing
  • there is no way to prevent future events like this from happening.

All of these are untrue as I hope to convince you in this piece but let us examine why people say such things.  We want to believe that no one is truly at fault (unless we want to blame someone we don’t like: CSIS, the RCMP, the police), we don’t want to admit that we could have done something to prevent these violent acts, we truly are convinced that there are things in this world that defy classification, etc.  If we really think that some crimes are ‘bolts from the blue’ we are curiously satisfied that as nothing could have been done to make a difference we don’t have to worry about.  ‘Stuff’ happens.  We move on.

And yet studies are coming out that the opposite is closer to the truth.  Even though those who engage in violence do not fit any kind of demographic (age, occupation, employment, mental status, relationship status and so on) they all tend to engage in behaviours that should tell those closest to them (partners, family, friends, workmates…) something is amiss.  These signs are out there for inspection and we have to actually choose to ignore them.

A recent FBI study on active shooters brought this idea to the fore.  A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 has concluded solidly that ” In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence. While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and — if recognized and reported — may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.”  This study is well researched, methodologically sound as far as I can determine and worth reading as it should put to bed the notion that these events, of which there are far too many in the US (from 2000-2013 n=160 of which 63 were subject to study for indicators), ‘come out of nowhere’.

The release of this paper came on the heels of an Angus Reid opinion poll in Canada on radicalization and homegrown terrorism in which 41% of respondents told pollsters that they “believe there are radicalized individuals living in their communities today.”  It is unclear why 2 in 5 Canadians feel this way: perhaps they are affected by what they see on the news in other countries since terrorism is a rare beast in ours or perhaps they have deep biases against those populations they think house (or encourage) radicalization.  Nevertheless, this is a significant percentage of Canadians.

Comparing this poll and the FBI study is a little like comparing apples and oranges: the former is a set of opinions while the latter is a scientific analysis but there is much here that is similar.  If two-fifths of us think we have a problem with radicalization and potential terrorism that suggests, admittedly weakly, that people have seen radicalization in their communities at some point.  If true, there must be some series of attitudes or behaviours that lead those people to conclude that they are consistent with radicalization.

In fact, there are overt, observable behaviours all the time.  I worked on these at CSIS almost 15 years ago and wrote many, many (classified) papers on the subject: some of that work was broadly reflected in my 2015 book The Threat from Within.  My old CSIS friends have moved on to do a follow-up analysis of mobilization to violence indicators, a small summary of which they made public recently. So, just as the FBI, our security folks have discovered patterns where many had said none exist.

These findings are wonderful news.  They take the imponderable and unpredictable and make it less scary.  They put tools into the hands of people in a position to effect early detection of potential problems, although all these studies caution that their conclusions are descriptive and not prescriptive.  Still, knowing what to look for sure beats not knowing even if there is no one-to-one mapping between behaviour and action.  There remains however the challenge of whether or not observers elect to report what they see: the FBI noted that “well-meaning bystanders…may even resist taking action to report for fear of erroneously labeling a friend or family member as a potential killer.”  You can lead a horse to water…

We should commend our protectors with sharing their research with us.  They know a lot more about violent extremism than anybody else does and we should heed their advice.  The ball is now in our court.

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.

2 replies on “Contrary to accepted wisdom, terrorism CAN be detected early enough to prevent”

Hi Phil
Yes, indeed you are right that people who are vulnerable to and actually undergoing radicalization can be identified – or at least flagged for closer scrutiny. Law enforcement identified some years ago the obvious indicators – dress, devotion to a cause and so on. See 2011, Behavioral Indicators Offer Insights for Spotting Extremists Mobilizing for Violence (NCTC – available on line) and New York State Law Enforcement Terrorism Indicators Reference Card (available on line).
However, the more interesting (and useful) indicators – and often evident long before the obvious indicators – are changes in the world view of a person prone to or actually radicalizing, as indicated in the way they think and approach thinking about information, language they use, the memes they circulate and the stories they tell and how they interpret the world. Although some work has been done on language – it has tended to be on use of pronouns and a few value laden words. (James Pennebaker and also Lisa Kaati, Katie Cohen et al. I saw a presentation quite a few years ago by same man who talked about INCELS). It was excellent. The list of ideas, words and pictures he circulated was right on the money, but i have not seen anything that comes close to his work.

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