Could Brussels happen in Canada?

In the wake of the horrendous attacks in Brussels this week, there has been a cascade of stories, op-ed pieces and analyses of the event, ranging from why Belgian security services did not prevent it to whether more are on their way.  Political scientist, sociologists and even a few former spies have weighed in, and the verdict is generally not kind to Belgium.  Others have referred to the terrorist attacks as a watershed or a harbinger of worse to come.  Are these dire prognoses correct?

We here in Canada are also asking ourselves whether what occurred at the airport and metro station could happen here and whether the government should raise the threat level or take other action.  It may be illustrative to examine what went wrong in Belgium and ask whether we are in a different situation here.

First and foremost, many have called the attack a failure of intelligence.  There is no question that there are challenges in sharing information across the EU and even within Belgium itself.  Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies should do a better job of coordination, but this will be difficult in a union of 28 member states with wide ranging levels of experience and competence in counter terrorism.  The story here in Canada is markedly better.  Information sharing at the federal level, especially between CSIS and the RCMP is very good, and there are mechanisms to talk among federal, provincial, territorial and municipal partners.  Relationships can always improve, but we are working from a solid base.

The large number of foreign fighters who have left to fight with terrorist groups like Islamic State from Belgium, France, the UK and others in Western Europe is substantially larger than it is here.  Belgium, for instance, has the highest per capita foreign fighter contingent in the world.  Not that all of these jihadists will return to commit acts back home, but historically ten percent of returnees do so.  If this continues, Western European security agencies are on the cusp of a very large problem.   As CSIS and the RCMP have noted, our figures are much smaller and hence our problem is not as great.

Areas like Molenbeek in Brussels are cauldrons of unrest, disenfranchisement, unemployment and alienation.  While it should be stressed that there is no proven causal relationship between these factors and radicalisation, the presence of large numbers of disengaged citizens does present challenges.  Those who do not see themselves part of Belgian society are less willing to cooperate with law enforcement to help identify potential terrorists.  Belgium and other Western European countries need to take further action to address this chasm within their societies.  Again, the situation in Canada is very different.  All is not perfect, but our cities do not have the marginalised ghettoes where resentment may in some circumstances lead to violent radicalisation.

Belgium has not put much investment into early intervention and counter radicalisation programming to stop this descent to violence before it begins.  The Canadian government is well ahead of the curve and the recent announcement of funding for counter radicalisation and community engagement should be seen as a good start (more on that later).  In addition, cities like Calgary, Toronto and Montreal have initiated their own efforts to address radicalisation before it becomes violent.

Authorities in Brussels did not put enough security at major gathering places like airports and metro stations.  This may be true, but there is no easy solution.  States could increase security exponentially everywhere, but at what cost, both in terms of money and the kind of country we want to live in?  You cannot secure every locale and once you crack down in one place, extremists move on to the next.  The situation is no different here in Canada.  Are our citizens willing to accept metal detectors at train stations?  Perhaps.  Would they be as willing to do so at restaurants?

Belgium should have known something was in the planning stages and been more alert.  The government threat level was already at high: how much higher could it go?  Some have criticised the Trudeau government for not raising it here.  Levels are determined by intelligence, not by fear and reaction to what happens elsewhere.  The fact that the level remains unchanged should serve as a reminder that we are relatively safe in Canada.

The Brussels attacks are a watershed and represent an existential threat to Europe.  This is perhaps the most egregious overreaction and only serves as a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  Even with the apparent uptick in attacks, terrorism remains a rare event and violent extremism does not threaten our states in any meaningful way (unless we allow it to through our rash measures).  That is especially true here in Canada where we have had only six plots in the post 9/11 era and two deaths in that timespan.

So, could Brussels happen here?  Absolutely.  There is no way to ensure that no attacks will happen.  We have to accept that while our security and law enforcement agencies are doing a very good job, they cannot stop all eventualities.  Most plots will be foiled: a few will succeed.  Terrorism is the new normal.

We need to ensure that CSIS, the RCMP and others have the resources necessary to fulfill their mandates.  We should increase our efforts at the early intervention and counter radicalisation stages and determine what works at what doesn’t to nip extremism in the bud.

Most  importantly, we as Canadians cannot give in to fear and suspicion.  We have to reject the vitriol of Republican candidates like Donald Trump with his call for torture and Ted Cruz with his plan to patrol Muslim neighbourhoods.  We have built a great country here and cannot let infrequent terrorism undermine that.

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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