Counter terrorism agencies forced to juggle many balls simultaneously

In many ways you have to feel for security intelligence agencies. I know full well that this is not an easy thing to ask as I cannot imagine most citizens want to cut these organisations any slack, or acknowledge that what they are called on to do – what WE demand they do, i.e. to keep us safe – is actually very, very difficult. Here I am not talking about legislative boundaries or technical challenges but rather the requirement that nothing bad, and by bad I mean a successful terrorist attack, ever happens. Any security intelligence service is only as good as its last failure. As the IRA famously told former UK PM Margaret Thatcher: “you have to be lucky 100% of the time; we only have to get lucky once.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the terrorist carnage in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday and why that country’s spies and cops did not prevent it from happening. After all, they did have intelligence warning of attacks and they seem to have also had foreknowledge of targets and even those planning these acts. And yet they failed to do what Sri Lankans demand of them: keep them safe. The most important question is, of course, why?

I am beginning to wonder if the ability of the security services to both predict and pre-empt these attacks was compromised to some extent by the multiple threats they faced. After all the country is not that far past the horrendous civil war/terrorism campaign by Tamils seeking an independent homeland in the north. Even though the war ‘ended’ in 2009 I doubt that the government, especially the intelligence services and the military, ever downed tools completely over what must remain of the LTTE terrorists. As I have always maintained, a terrorist group that does not achieve its goal and resolve its grievances never really goes away. If the actors themselves are killed or take up new (or no) causes, the grievance stays and could be picked up by new actors. I am pretty sure that the Sri Lankan services were aware of this too (NB I have never met the Sri Lankan intelligence organisations).

Compounding matters is the rise of Buddhist extremism, directed largely at the country’s Muslim population (and to a lesser extent its Christian one). Several mob-style attacks urged on by Buddhist leaders have occurred and I bet that this threat was on the radar of the security agencies (NB I cover this in great deal in my next book ‘When Religion Kills’). To this we have to add the growing Islamist extremist threat, egged on by Saudi-funded Wahabbi preachers (surprise, surprise – check out my podcast on this), and a smallish but obviously lethal foreign fighter returnee problem. In fact this intolerant version of Islam, and their particular hatred for Sufi Muslims, in Sri Lanka goes back at least a decade or so.

So now what? What should Sri Lanka do? There are already fears among Sri Lanka’s minorities that the government will launch a crackdown in the wake of the Easter Sunday massacre. As one Christian Tamil noted: “The heavy hand of the security state will breed extremism of all kinds…Our problem is that, fundamentally, minority rights, religious or ethnic, are treated with disrespect and with force by the government. Until we resolve this, Sri Lanka will be stained in blood.” Will Sri Lanka return to the bad old days of the civil war?

More importantly, what is transpiring in Sri Lanka holds larger implications for intelligence services worldwide, including us here in Canada. The terrorist threat picture has changed of late. We have been focusing on Islamist extremism for so long now – and for the right reasons as it was the #1 threat – that we are almost in the same situation as the Sri Lankans were with the Tamil Tigers. It suggests that it is hard to juggle several priorities simultaneously.

We should not dismiss this too quickly. Intelligence services have to constantly shift resources to meet new demands and those demands are constantly shifting as well. It is not easy to ramp up enough knowledgeable and trained bodies overnight and I don’t think that there is any way around this.

What does this mean? It means that in a world where Islamist terrorism is still a huge threat (still #1 in my books) at the same time we have to deal with the multiple manifestations of the far right (neo-Nazi, fascist, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, etc.) and probably a nascent far left threat, all with finite resources.

I am not asking for sympathy as I do not expect Canadians or Americans or Sri Lankans to spare a thought for their spies. I am simply weighing in on how difficult this really is. I hope, for all our sakes, that my analysis is wrong.

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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