Dreaming of terrorism

As we strive to learn more about why people adopt violent extremist views and, more importantly in my opinion, try to determine which people pose a real threat to society, we often find ourselves in areas we would not have expected.  We need to exhaust every avenue, no matter how outside the box, for two primary reasons.  First, not all those who harbour violent thoughts take action on those thoughts and we cannot, and should not, monitor everybody who thinks differently.  We have to limit our attention to real threats both for reasons of resources and out of respect for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  And yet secondly there are some who do participate in terrorist acts and our citizens expect our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies to identify and stop those acts before they happen.  The better you are at determining the real threats the better you are at disrupting them without trampling on the legitimate rights of the majority.

One of those unexpected research roads is the role of dreams in violent extremism.  This has been the subject of study for some time as a recent article made clear.   Iain Ross Edgar from Durham University in the UK has been looking at dreams within Islam for many years and has stated that in Islam “true” dreams (as opposed to those implanted by Satan) can offer insight into “the future, offering premonitions, but also guidance from the Divine.”  Other scholars who have commented on the importance of dreams in terrorism include Norway’s Thomas Hegghammer, and even the FBI looked into the phenomenon.

I have a confession to make: so did we at CSIS a few years back.  In an paper I authored “The role of dreams in the justification of jihad” we examined whether, for some individuals, dreams could help indicate whether unconscious episodes could contribute to the perceived obligation for jihad.  The prevalence of dreaming was not frequent, but nor was it negligible.  Again, when you are trying to ascertain someone’s propensity to act violently you have to take into consideration a lot of information.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  After Stewart Bell of the National Post wrote on the paper (gained through Access to Information), the blogosphere went ballistic.  Here were some of the criticisms of the work:

We at CSIS were accused of monitoring the thoughts of Canadian citizens and, what is worse, targeting people based on their dreams.  Neither of which was remotely accurate, of course, but I have found that anything CSIS does – or is accused of doing – is wrong anyway in the minds of some.

What I think is really of importance here, however, are two related aspects.  The first has to do with the availability of information. As noted, Stewart Bell got access to that dreams paper: you can see it here.  Have a look – what did you see?  Essentially nothing.  The Access to Information system is badly broken to say the least.  Rather than inform Canadians, released documents are edited and minimised to the point where what is left is at best useless and at worse misleading and harmful.  The paper in question went into significant detail as to why dreams MAY be of use in investigations and why examining them could help CSIS figure out who was of real concern from a national security perspective.  It was NOT a frivolous pursuit.  The lesson here: more, not less, should be made public so that we can have a grown up dialogue about terrorism in this country.  In my opinion – and I worked in intelligence for more than three decades – the government hides behind secrecy too much and can be more forthcoming without harming national security or ongoing investigations.

Secondly, it strikes me as unfortunate that a legitimate field of inquiry – the role of dreams – is valid if an academic writes on it, but not if an intelligence agency does.  Some may accuse me of whining on this point, but I fail to see why a classified study should count less than an open one (aside from the fact that the former aren’t available publicly).  There are a lot of very bright and very dedicated analysts working at agencies like CSIS and their work is adding significantly to keeping us safe.  It’s a shame that the organisation does not share more.  Canadians need to move away from beliefs that CSIS is evil or incompetent: neither are true.  CSIS analysts ask the exact same questions scholars do, although they do benefit from data sources that the latter can’t.

At the end of the day, terrorism studies will sometimes lurch into directions that may appear, at first blush, to be unjustified.  The study of dreams was not one of them.



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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