Hiding in plain sight

Whenever a terrorist attack happens we collectively strive both to understand it and to look over what we may have missed.  We do so in order to figure out how we can better identify the signs of violent radicalisation and perhaps act before terrorist events occur.

I have long argued that the signs of violent radicalisation are largely overt and there for the taking.  My opinion is based on my extensive experience while working for CSIS on homegrown extremists as well as the countless stories in the media where “we never saw it coming” is easy to prove wrong once you ask the right questions and examine the behaviours and attitudes that extremists outwardly showed.

So imagine my great surprise when I read a piece in the New Yorker magazine (see it here) in which two researchers claim that extremists can, and often do, hide their growing hateful ideology and violent intent.  The two, Pete Simi, at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Robert Futrell, of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “interviewed eighty-nine white supremacists—skinheads, Klansmen, neo-Nazis—with the goal of understanding what the researchers call strategies of calculated concealment and revelation.”

The article is very interesting but probably not applicable to what happened in San Bernardino. The FBI claimed, by the way, that the terrorist couple in California never expressed support for “jihad and martyrdom” in social media (see article here).  I do not want to criticise the FBI, an agency I worked a lot with over my career, but I am very surprised by this statement as it goes against my 15 years of experience in Canada.

There are two things I want to say here.  The first is that the US researchers who studied far right extremism and are trying to extrapolate their work to Islamist extremism are comparing apples and oranges.  There are so many differences between the two types of terrorism that it is disingenuous to say that because Neo-Nazis do something, IS supporters will do likewise.  From backgrounds to targeting to the type of ideology, the two groups cannot be subsumed under the same rubric.

Secondly there are ALWAYS signs.  They may be subtle but more often than not they are obvious and in your face.  Read any reputable article on Islamist extremism where a terrorist lived in any environment for any length of time and the people in that environment, when asked to reflect on their interactions with and observations of the terrorist, will inevitably remember something that was consistent with the radicalisation process.  It may not have looked like much at the time, and hindsight is usually 20-20, but the signs were there and could have been detected and acted upon by informed individuals.  And there is a good chance that the signs will include some of the 12 I provided in my book The Threat from Within.

The author of the New Yorker piece notes that the ability to hide extremist intentions is “unnerving”.  Yes it is, but it is rare.  We may not be able to detect every single plot, but we can detect violent radicalisation.  Attack planning indicators are not the same as radicalisation indicators.  Let’s not confuse the two.


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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