Fearmongering about terrorism does not help people!

There is an old saying that goes “If my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bus (or a bike, apparently. in the original Spanish)”.  This very silly sentence means that there are things that are unlikely to happen and therefore are not worth mentioning.

This phrase was the very first thing that came to my mind when I read a piece in Canada’s Global News about a ‘threat assessment’ that was written by Public Safety Canada (and perhaps this shows why threat assessments should be left to CSIS and the RCMP).  According to the report “while the threat of a chemical attack in Canada is considered remote, there continues to be a potential risk of extremist travelers returning to Canada, having gained knowledge of the use of crude chemical weapons.”

Well at least the authors did say ‘remote’.

In my view this is a prime example of an irresponsible paper that does nothing but to cause fear and panic among Canadians.  It is not that the so- called Islamic State would not have loved to use chemical weapons – which IS’ enemies (i.e. Syria) have used on many occasions – and may in fact have deployed them in their reign of terror (there is certainly some evidence of that), or inspire their minions to do so now that IS is a shadow of its former self.   No, what bothers me is that the ‘analysts’ do not appear to have run their ‘analysis’ through a reality filter.  In fairness, there may be intelligence on this issue that I obviously no longer have access to – but even so I am going to call this bad analysis for several reasons:

a) most foreign fighters were idiots.  They have as much chance of mastering the acquisition and use of chemical weapons as I do of becoming an NHL goaltender (Ok, maybe slightly higher than the odds I will find myself between the pipes in the Bell Centre any time soon).  Never say never but I think this is highly, highly unlikely.

b) chemical weapons are hard to get, hard to weaponise to any effective extent, and hard to deploy.  True, a group like Aum Shinrikyo did use sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995 and I recall seeing an Al Qaeda video once that showed a dog in a cage succumbing to some noxious substance but it remains a fact that terrorist groups have not had a great deal of success in the use of chemical (or biological) weapons.  States have a better record, and IS is no longer a ‘state’.

c) the current terrorist attack trend is to simpler vectors such as knives and cars, not complicated ones.  If I were a terrorist I would want my act to succeed and hence I would drive a vehicle into a crowd.  Using a chemical substance would expose me to poisoning/death as well even while I was preparing my device.  Not a good bet in my view.

I do not understand why this possibility was included.  No one else that I have read seems to be seized with this possibility, so why would Canada be so concerned?  I try to keep up on analysis available in open source but I don’t remember seeing a lot of ink spilled on this threat lately.  If I were still a government security analyst – sigh, those were the days! – I would be much more focused on radicalisation and indicators of mobilisation as well as what our intelligence agencies are telling me.  I would not write on this: it strikes me as a ‘squirrel!’ moment to be honest.  At least others in the government shared my doubts and this passage was excised, from what I can determine.

Canadians and others are already freaked out enough about terrorism, and disproportionately so.  What we need is sober assessment not ‘Oh my God!’ analysis.  This piece gets a failing grade from me.

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.

Leave a Reply