Terrorism perception vs reality – part 1

There are many occasions on which public perception does not hold up well once research is carried out and data collected.  For instance, people in Canada and the US think that crime is on the increase when statistics show quite the opposite and that we are in an era of unprecedented safety.  Global warming  is a myth (if you are a Republican) despite mounds of data that clearly support the theory.  In this vein we have the following: do those who come from conflict-stricken homelands bring their wars and arguments to their new lands?  Collected wisdom would say yes, research says no.  Which one is right on this issue?

I recently read an article in the Ottawa Citizen that looks at this very question (Syrian refugees: we don’t import conflict).  Here are two excerpts that show how diametrically opposed average people and researchers are:

  • A survey of almost 4,500 people in late 2012 and early 2013 done in conjunction with the study found that 57 per cent believed “imported conflict” was both real and a problem.
  • “We don’t end up importing conflict. A hundred percent per cent of the people I spoke with — even those who felt strongly that violence was inevitable back home — felt that violence was wrong,” (U of Toronto professor Rima Berns-McGown)

57% vs. zero.  That’s quite a spread.  Where is the real number?

It should be noted that I am very familiar with the research cited above, carried out by the Mosaic Institute of Toronto.  I have heard officials of this thinktank explain their methodology and findings on numerous occasions.  On each occasion I have walked away unconvinced and have shared my concerns with the authors.  So, what are my issues with this data?

Several actually, beginning with the reliability of their material.  As a career intelligence analyst I learned that people do not always tell the truth, especially when they perceive that the truth is not what you want to hear or that telling the truth may get them into hot water. It is clear to me that recent immigrants whose status in a new country is tenuous at best would not want to admit to thinking about wars and conflict back home, let alone doing something about those conflicts.  In today’s heightened worries about terrorism, new arrivals would not want to give those opposed to immigration from areas such as the Middle East fodder for voicing that opposition.  Immigrants are already seen by some as unwelcome: the fear that they might bring festering conflicts into Canada would only magnify that view.

More importantly, it is very clear that events outside Canada have a tremendous impact on terrorism inside Canada.  Wars in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria to name but a few have contributed in part to the decisions of hundreds of Canadians, some of whom are immigrants, to leave their adopted homeland and fight in their native countries. Some may return to carry out terrorist acts here.  In a few cases, Canada’s response to those foreign conflicts have incited terrorists to execute acts of violence: all six AQ- or IS-inspired plots since 2006 were planned to punish Canada and Canadians for our decisions to deploy our soldiers abroad.  To deny the impact of foreign unrest on the minds of a very small number of our citizens is a woeful ignorance of what drives terrorism (it is not the only driver but it is an important one).

I do want to commend the Mosaic Institute for their work and I do not disagree with their contention that the vast majority of immigrants come to this country to get away from the violence and unrest in their homelands.  It appears reasonable that most want to put that past behind them as they create new lives in their new homes.  But to suggest that precisely zero people are influenced by events back home beggars belief.  Whether it is the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine or violence in the southern Philippines or the unfortunate morass that is Somalia, it would be counterintuitive at a minimum to maintain that the Ukrainian, Philippine and Somali diasporas in Canada can completely ignore these tragedies.  Yes, they are endeavouring to become fully Canadian and embrace the freedom and richness we have built here, but they do not throw out who they are and where they came from.  I am not suggesting that these communities plan to “import” those conflicts here, but they clearly take action to address them (Canadian Tamils financed the LTTE for decades).  No, they are not all terrorists, but there are violent extremists in this country who build on unrest and suffering abroad.

For this round of perception vs. reality, the latter is more accurate it seems.  While there is nothing to suggest that most immigrants are keen to revisit homeland wars, it is obvious that saying no one does so is incorrect.



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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