How to prevent real terrorism threats in Canada

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so they say. Does this describe the UK’s Prevent counter terrorism programme?

We do admire the Brits, don’t we?  All that ‘Keep calm and carry on’ stuff during the war as the Nazis were blitzing London and other British cities.  Added to that, ‘colonialism’ notwithstanding, there are still many very deeply-embedded ties with England that have been nourished over centuries.

One of the most important series of relationships is that of intelligence.  Canadian agencies such as CSIS and CSE (NB I worked at both over a 32-year period) deal with their UK counterparts, MI5 and GCHQ respectively, on a regular basis and we in Canada are safer as a result.

It therefore stands to reason that when the UK carries out a review of one of the tools in their counter-terrorism arsenal, namely the Prevent program, we should pay some attention on this side of the Atlantic.  Not that the British facts on the ground are the same over here, but there are definitely parallel developments and the scathing report on the state of Prevent by William Shawcross bears reading.

Put simply, Prevent is part of the UK’s Contest initiative (COunter TErrorism STrategy;  the other three pillars are Protect, Prepare, and Pursue).  The Prevent angle is akin to CVE (countering violent extremism), the goal of which is to identify individuals at risk, or showing early signs, of radicalization to violent extremism.

The Shawcross overview is damning in parts.  While it recognizes that Prevent is “broadly right in its objectives, admirable in its intentions and that fulfils many of its functions to good effect” it also notes that “the facts clearly demonstrate that the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism, and this threat continues.”  Shawcross adds that of late Prevent has “drawn the boundaries around extremist Islamist ideology too narrowly while those boundaries around the ideology of the Extreme Right-Wing are too broad.”

What do we take out of all this?  MI5 has openly stated that it has concerns about more than 23,000 Brits who have terrorist intentions, the vast majority of whom are Islamist extremists, and had foiled 31 credible threat to life plots in recent years.  The track record of these terrorist actors on UK soil is indeed a bloody one.

That the far right is real and poses a threat is not denied in the report.  Yet, it is clear that the attention paid to it within Prevent is disproportionate to the level of the threat, and individuals referred to the program out of concern of far right radicalisation are often nowhere near a concern to the intelligence and law enforcement agencies or the British public at large.  Facts are facts, after all.

What does this mean for us in Canada?  Much, perhaps.  As recently as 2017 the vast majority of counter-terrorism investigations at CSIS were predominantly on Islamist terrorists and that was indeed the proper response.  Far right cases have risen of late and CSIS is atop these threats, as Canadians would expect it to be.

The Trudeau government does not seem at all concerned about Islamist terrorism , however. Not only can it not utter the term ‘Islamist’, substituting the bland and inaccurate ‘religiously-motivated violent extremism’ (or RMVE – when is the last time you saw a Mennonite or Seventh Day Adventist suicide bomber?  Alas, jihadis are blowing up themselves, and others, around the world on a daily basis), but it wants us to buy that ‘Islamophobia’ should be our #1 concern.

We want CSIS and the RCMP to devote resources to threats proportionate to the nature and severity of those threats.  That the far right is getting more dollars and officers is great – IF there is a real escalation in that brand of violent extremism.  But we need to be assured that those agencies are continuing to monitor Islamist terrorists too, as MI5 and every other Western counterpart still is.  We do not want, nor can we allow, governments to dictate what our security and law enforcement organisations focus on out of some misplaced sense of bias or discrimination.

Canada is fortunate in that terrorism is a rare scourge in our land (as my new book The Peaceable Kingdom illustrates).  Let’s hope it remains so and that our protectors continue to keep us safe without government and outside interference.

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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