How risk averse are we when it comes to terrorism?

It is no exaggeration to say that we have ‘terrorism on the brain’. Our newspapers, magazines and Web sites are full of stories about terrorist attacks here and terrorist attacks there. Our leaders – well, some of them anyway – see terrorists lurking behind every tree (or every irregular migrant) and want to build walls to keep them out. To say that terrorism is an obsession with many of us is to merely state the obvious.

Of course I am partly to blame for this unhealthy fear. After all, I have written five books on terrorism, write regular blogs on the phenomenon (gee, like this one!) and will soon enter the world of podcasting – on terrorism naturally. Maybe I should quit (and maybe I will one day) – but not just yet.

I think there is a fear of terrorism that is disproportionate to the actual risk of terrorism. And I think I have the numbers to back up that belief. Let’s use Canada as an example. We are a nation of somewhere between 36 and 37 million souls (let’s go with the upper figure). Since 9/11, a grand total of 19 people have been killed in terrorist acts in this country (NB I am using a wide definition of terrorism to arrive at this number: 2 deaths in 2014 at the hands of jihadis; 6 in 2017 at a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City; and 11 by “incel” Alek Minassian in Toronto in 2018). 19 deaths in 17 years is a tad more than one per year. Now, I am not statistician, but I reckon that works out, on average, to a one in 37 million chance that any single Canadian will be killed in a terrorist attack in any given year.

How does that compare with other odds? Let’s see:

  • Killed by lightning: 1 in 56,439
  • Die — during an average lifetime — of flesh-eating disease: 1 in 1,000,000
  • Die after being bitten by a poisonous snake or lizard (in the US, not Canada): 1 in 1,241,661
  • Killed in a terrorist attack while travelling: 1 in 650,000

Well at least the last one listed above had to do with terrorism (lesson to be learned: if you don’t want to die in a terrorist attack, don’t travel!)

As a corollary to this discussion on risk, how safe do we want to be? In other words, how low must the threat of terrorism be before we can sleep safely at night? How much do we expect our protectors to do to stop terrorism? Is perfection the norm (i.e. ZERO successful attacks)? One a year? Two? Ten?

If we demand zero terrorism there are a few things we have to accept to achieve that goal. First and foremost we need to ensure that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies are adequately staffed to detect and foil plots. Secondly, we need a criminal justice system that rightly punishes foiled attackers to possibly act as a deterrent (hint: we need a lot a work on this front in Canada). Thirdly, we need Canadians to better understand what radicalisation to violence looks like and be willing to engage with authorities to identify potential terrorists sooner rather than later.

There is also a downside to zero tolerance. Demanding no terrorism at all can lead to bad decisions and bad actions. The post 9/11 world is rife with dumb moves spurred by a fear of terrorism: Guantanamo, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, China’s incarceration of a million Uyghurs, the belief of many that Islam = terrorism…the list goes on and on. This is what happens when fear trumps reason.

We can do better people. We can use facts to inform our emotions. We can push back on the fearmongering that is out there. We can challenge fake news and conspiracy theories. We have the tools – let’s use them!

I’d like to end this piece on risk with an excerpt from a recent interview in The Economist with the UK’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees which provided the impetus for these thoughts: I think it puts things in perspective nicely.

So how risk averse should we be? Some would argue that odds of ten million to one against an existential disaster would be good enough, because that is below the chance that, within the next year, an asteroid large enough to cause global devastation will hit the Earth… But to some, this limit may not seem stringent enough. If there were a threat to the entire Earth, the public might properly demand assurance that the probability is below one in a billion—even one in a trillion… Can we credibly give such assurances? We may offer these odds against the Sun not rising tomorrow, or against a fair die giving one hundred sixes in a row, because we’re confident that we understand these things. But if our understanding is shaky…we can’t really assign a probability, or confidently assert that something is unlikely.

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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