February 10, 2018 | Explosions during Oruro Carnival

Terrorism usually ‘makes sense’ when you analyse it enough: sometimes it does not.

TODAY IN TERRORISM — You all know the old saying “if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This phrase has been used for many years to distinguish between observation and perception in philosophy. From a scientific angle, the tree’s descent will create sound waves, but it no one is there to have those waves hit the eardrum then they will not register as sound to any human. Pretty complicated stuff, eh?

So what does this have to do with terrorism? Lots.

If you are a terrorist or a terrorist group you want attention. You want notoriety. You want to get everyone talking about you. And, most importantly, you want everyone to be afraid.

Terrorism is theatre

US terrorism guru Brian Jenkins has come up with many great phrases to describe the goals of violent extremists. Two of my personal favourites are:

  • Terrorists do not want a lot of people dead: they want a lot of people watching; and
  • Terrorism is theatre

So why would a terrorist group carry out an attack and say nothing? In other words what do we do with an incident that looks very much to be a terrorist one and there is no claim of responsibility? Is it to cause more fear and uncertainty (we can do whatever we want and you will never figure it out!)?

This really complicates our analysis. In order for us to rule that an event is truly terrorist in nature we have to demonstrate motive (political, ideological or religious in Canadian law). If we have no information on which to base that analysis we really cannot conclude that what just took place was indeed terrorism.

2018 Oruro attacks

A very good example came to us recently from Bolivia, a land rarely (if ever) associated with terrorism. On this day in 2018 (and three days later) explosives were set off in the city of Oruro during the annual Carnival. In all, twelve people were killed and 50 wounded. There were several arrests but no one was ever convicted of the crimes. One of the explosions involved ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil), an industrial material often used in fertiliser bombs: the other involved dynamite.

It is hard to figure out what this all was. The use of ANFO definitely suggests terrorism, but the motive is nowhere to be found. Despite the offer of a reward by Bolivian President Morales for information from the public no ‘smoking gun’ has been uncovered. Nevertheless, this is the largest attack of its kind in Bolivian history.

The more time goes by the less likely it is that Bolivian authorities will get to the bottom of this. We are thus left with a possible terrorist attack by an unknown group for unknown reasons. Not very satisfying, is it?

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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