This piece appeared in the April 23 edition of The Hill Times
In a very funny Monty Python skit John Cleese plays a drill sergeant who is trying to teach a bunch of skinny recruits to defend themselves against foes wielding fresh fruit (oranges, apples, grapefruit, pomegranates….) with typical hilarious results. Cleese gets the underwear-clad students to charge him with fruit while he responds by shooting them, releasing a tiger and dropping a 16-tonne weight on the hapless learners. One of the recruits (played by Eric Idle) keeps asking to acquire skills to foil an enemy armed with a ‘pointed stick’ only to be town to “Shut up!” each time by Cleese.
A recent attack on an airport in Michigan by a Canadian brandishing a ‘pointed stick’, which may or may not be an act of terrorism, has Pythonesque tones to it. In June 2017 a Montreal resident, Amor Ftouhi, crossed the Canada-US border at Lake Champlain, NY, drove all the way to Flint, Michigan and ended up at the Bishop Airport where he stabbed a police officer. He was charged with ‘committing violence at an airport’ and in March of this year US authorities added terrorist charges. Mr. Ftouhi is alleged to have yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attack, referenced killings in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and described himself as a ‘soldier of Allah’ and a follower of former Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden.
There is much to this story that is odd, to say the least. Why would someone choose Flint? It certainly is not on the normal terrorist beaten path (New York, London, Paris) but then again we have seen attacks in out of the way places as well (Strathroy, San Bernardino, Orlando). Why would someone go to Flint via Lake Champlain? Was there another target that did not work out for some reason? Apparently the assailant tried to purchase a gun in the US but was unsuccessful and settled on a knife which he used to cut the officer in the neck. What was the raison d’etre behind the incident? Why not just go to PET airport (it would have been a lot less complicated)?
The more important implication to this attack is the sheer impossibility of predicting or intervening to stop it. Mr. Ftouhi was apparently not known to either Canadian or American security or law enforcement authorities (at least not to our knowledge) nor to Montreal’s innovative Centre pour la Prévention de la Radicalisation Menant à la Violence (CPRMV). Despite the fact that the initial attempt to purchase a firearm in the US, which is normally not complicated, failed the attacker elected to use a knife. Items like these are not only ubiquitous but beyond control or regulation. The recent flurry of terrorist attacks by those opting for blades is on the increase: Scarborough, London, Finland, Australia, the list goes on. From the terrorists’ perspective this is indeed a very good option.
A fair question remains: how can these attacks be prevented? The simple, and to my mind correct, answer is: they cannot. Unless our protectors are already investigating those who go on to carry out plots of this nature, or unless those close to the assailant notice something amiss, these attacks will continue. Just as in vehicular attacks, terrorists are adapting their methodologies and MOs to defeat the obstacles we have placed in the way of other plans such as the use of aircraft. We need to ask ourselves whether some acts are all but unstoppable. Yes, some are.
Nevertheless, terrorism in Canada and the US remains an outlier despite what you might want to believe based on hyped news coverage. Furthermore, most attacks are interdicted thanks to prior intelligence and surveillance and no one gets hurt. We must remain realistic, however, regarding what can be done. Expecting a 100% success rate is not only unreasonable – it is impossible. No one said a perfect world was possible so we should be more realistic in our views. Terrorism is here to stay, the heroic efforts of the agencies tasked with preventing it notwithstanding.