How easy is it to stop a terrorist?

It is hard to know what the average person thinks about how intelligence services operate.  I suppose it may be a mixture of what people see on TV or in the theatres and the largely negative stories in the press about overreach and shady activities (in all fairness it is not the media’s fault since spies rarely share anything with the fifth estate, leaving room for anyone to comment irrespective of experience or knowledge).  At the same time there is no doubt an expectation that citizens will be protected from bad guys (terrorists and foreign spies) in exchange for the billions these services receive.

What is for certain is that when terrorist acts get through the net the spies set up everyone is angry and demands to know what went wrong.  This is exactly what is happening in Germany over the Christmas market attack and the questions raised are particularly sharp given that the dead terrorist was known to German authorities and was judged by them to be a low threat.  The same criticism was levied at the RCMP when Aaron Driver, who was not only on their radar but subject to a peace bond with strict conditions, was able to build two bombs and get so far as to hail a cab to take him to his target before he too was shot dead.  What is wrong with our security services and how hard can it be to determine what level of threat these malefactors pose?  Duh.

Here is an insider’s view of what it is like to work at the coal face of national security and just how difficult it is to be certain about what terrorists are up to.  First of all, information (intelligence) either comes in from multiple sources and varies a lot in quality and accuracy or hardly comes in at all.  Whatever the case, it is hard to make a definitive judgment of what someone is up to and what kind of menace they represent.  “Connecting the dots” this is not.  Secondly, at any given time many investigations are unfolding simultaneously and any one of these can escalate quickly from a watching brief to an imminent threat.  Thirdly, the agencies responsible for keeping us safe have neither the human resources nor the funds to carry out more than a few top priority investigations at once (pop quiz: how many agents/officers does it take to follow one person – answer: 20-40).   Fourthly, the vicissitudes of human behaviour render prediction next to impossible.  Anyone who claims to have a fool proof threat model is lying.  Yesterday’s loser becomes tomorrow’s violent extremist with a gun or a bomb.

On top of all this, when our spymasters seek new tools or accesses everyone screams “1984”!  As a result, our spooks are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

And yet, with all these shortcomings and challenges, these bodies stop the vast majority of attacks.  How is that for a track record?  They succeed in bringing together the right people and the right tools (surveillance, warrants, human sources, etc.) in tight timeframes to disrupt terrorist plots.

That is how it all comes about.  Agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS won’t tell you how they do their jobs since they can’t without jeopardising their operations.  So consider this a small public service from someone who spent three decades on the inside.

I am not advocating refraining from criticising our spies and cops, when criticism is necessary.  But you better make sure you know what you are talking about before you sling arrows from the gallery.  Booing from the cheap seats may be fun and you may think it is your right since you paid for your seat, but it is never effective.


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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