Is Canada’s security service focusing on the right terrorist threat?

The decision to shift counter terrorism resources from jihadis to RWE is ill-advised and may come back to bite us one day.

National security services, like everything else in life, have to change with the times. Events occur which augur significant shifts in global movements – and threats. Pretending that these transformations aren’t important, or choosing outright to ignore them, is not a good way of running a spy agency.

At the same time it is rare for situations to change for good. While a particular issue may wax and wane in terms of seriousness, it rarely goes away forever. Hence, it is critical for security services to keep an eye – or two – on a whole range of matters. The challenge is to determine how many eyes to devote to these threats and, more importantly, figure out if enough resources are on hand to do it all (if not, ask for more people/money!).

Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean by this.

In the 1980s I worked as a multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency. I was part of a small team of very young university graduates (I was only 22 when I started my career in intelligence) that focused on everything but the Soviet Union (USSR) and its allies – this was the Cold War after all. We were called ‘the rest of the world’ (ROTW) – I am NOT making this up! – and seen as an afterthought, a reporting team whose mission paled in comparison to the effort to keep tabs on the USSR and its military capabilities.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 this focus changed in a major way. The need to monitor the USSR virtually disappeared overnight and requirements for intelligence product were also transformed. The small ROTW team acquired much more importance and grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. And that was the right response to this global development. CSE adapted to the new needs of government and I was fortunate to be part of that.

But what if nothing really changed?

Writing in late August 2022 we see a resurgent Russia which, although not the USSR per se, is acting to influence, if not physically take by force, neighbouring nations (e.g. the invasion of Ukraine), not to mention its meddling in cyber around the world. And this makes us wonder if we took our collective intelligence eye off the Russian ball too soon (NB I cannot go into that as I never worked Russia and have no access to current intelligence).

There is, however, another issue that is analogous in nature and has to do with counter terrorism (CT), an issue I AM more comfortable writing about.

According to a recent report in Canada’s Global News, Canada’s domestic spy agency (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – CSIS – where I acted as senior strategic terrorism analyst from 2001-2015) warned the government in October 2021 that the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan could increase the risk of “religiously motivated extremism” in Canada.

NB as an aside the term religiously motivated extremism (RMVE) is a pathetic attempt by the current government to use semantically vacuous terms to avoid ‘Islamophobia’ since the only critical form of religious terrorism is Islamist, a term that served us well for decades: I have written extensively on this elsewhere.

That CSIS should have written this should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, but this phrase caught my eye: “Religiously motivated extremism inspired by groups like Daesh or al-Qaida has taken a back seat (emphasis added) in Canada’s national security discourse due to the rise of what CSIS calls “ideologically motivated violent extremism” (IMVE). That includes far-right and white supremacist groups that have proliferated and gained prominence in Canada, the United States and Europe over the last decade.”

In other words, CSIS appears to have elected to shift its CT focus from Islamist terrorism, which had been all but the only priority from the late 1990s to the mid 2010s (I left in 2015) and rightfully so. We had seen, and disrupted, several jihadist plots in Canada, and hundreds of Canadians had left the country to join terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda (AQ), Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Shabaab (AS) and carry out terrorist attacks abroad (much more detail in my latest book The Peaceable Kingdom). Hence, the resources had been placed where they were required (NB the last time we had taken a serious look at the far right (RWE)- again, labeled IMVE in a woke culture way by the government – was in the 1990s and we concluded, rightly so, that this bunch couldn’t organise a piss-up in a tavern: that has changed to some extent).

Why would CSIS do this? Was RWE really a bigger threat than jihadism in the latter 2010s? Not according to global data it wasn’t.

If you look at the Global Terrorism Index issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace, as good as an indicator as any, you will find the following stats (NB the report’s numbers cover the previous calendar year):

  • 2015 – 32,658 deaths from terrorism: 57% of all attacks occurred in just five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria (all 100% Islamist);
  • 2016 – 29,376 deaths from terrorism: 72% of all deaths occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria (100% Islamist);
  • 2017 – 25,673 deaths from terrorism: 75% of all deaths occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria (100% Islamist);
  • 2018 –  18,814 deaths from terrorism: 68% of all deaths occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Somalia (100% Islamist);
  • 2019 – 15,952 deaths from terrorism: 73% of all deaths occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Somalia (100% Islamist);
  • and 2020 – 13,826 deaths from terrorism: ten countries with the highest impact from terrorism are: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines (overwhelmingly Islamist).

I think you get the point.

Now, CSIS did the right thing by upping its game on RWE: that is what a good security intelligence agency does after all. Far right actors had become marginally more capable (the January 2017 attack on a mosque in Quebec City is a good illustration of that). But do these figures justify jihadism taking a ‘back seat’ to RWE? Not in my books they don’t. Yes, there have been a few RWE attacks, just as there have been jihadis ones but, interestingly, no foiled RWE ones: we disrupted many jihadi ones in the 2000s and 2010s. Hmmm, what does that say about threat level?

I have no idea why CSIS would elect to put its Islamist terrorist investigations on the back burner (or even if it did: I don’t know what the source of the Global News article was). But I do know that the Trudeau government talks a lot about, and ONLY about, RWE (what it inanely calls IMVE – ALL terrorism is ideologically motivated!) and never (or rarely) the Islamist variety.

I thus pose the question: did the government nudge CSIS to shift resources from jihadism to RWE? Was there something stronger than a ‘nudge’? I have no idea but I sure hope not. I pray that the decision to change focus was dictated by intelligence coming in and ONLY intelligence coming in. But did government wokism have an effect?

As it stands, CSIS now says it still worries about jihadis: a spokesperson said RMVE remains a “high priority” for the agency (Q: if it is worried about RMVE does that include Mennonite terrorism? Shucks, the Mennonites are very religious and perhaps we should look at the possibility of horse and buggy suicide bombers! Can we please go back to calling it Islamist terrorism?). That is indeed a good thing. Does it have enough resources dedicated to it? Inquiring minds want to know!

Why does any of this matter? Let me go back to the USSR example. In the 1990s we let go of dozens of Russian linguists because we had ‘won’ the Cold War: their experience and skillsets were deemed unnecessary. We did not return our attention to Russia until may years later. As a consequence we lost valuable intelligence and knowledge and I hope we have made up for that gap.

I also hope we don’t have a similar gap on Islamist terrorism, if indeed we have dedicated fewer resources to it over the last five or so years. Our close Western allies, such as Belgium and the UK, are still going full bore on jihadis. Alas, security intelligence agencies are only as good as their last (perceived) failure. If something goes ‘boom’ in Toronto and it is the work of a jihadi a lot of uncomfortable questions are going to be asked. Let’s pray it does not come to that.

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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