It is rare for a terrorist group to entirely cease to exist. There have been several successful attacks over the past few years and there will be more.
If you were to assess the threat from terrorism to the West as of August 2020, based solely on newspaper coverage and ‘expert’ input, I imagine most Canadians would say unequivocally that the single greatest terrorism ‘flavour’ today is that represented by what has been loosely termed the ‘far right’ and is usually referred to as ‘RWE” (right-wing extremism). The term tends to encompass a dog’s breakfast of ideologies: white supremacists, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, fascists, etc.
We see what is happening south of the border to us as well as come across reports on how the German military is rife with extremists of this ilk and we assume that the same thing must be going on here. To be sure, there are actors one would broadly throw in to the RWE basket who appear dangerous and we did have a horrendous attack on a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 by one such (apparent) adherent: Alexandre Bissonnette.
In keeping with this perceived shift in terrorist threat there are all kinds of ‘experts’ calling on Canadian agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP to retool and shift investigative resources from the ‘traditional’ terrorist threat – ‘traditional’ in the sense of post 9/11 – from Islamist extremism to RWE, as if the former has been ‘resolved’.
I have bad news: it hasn’t.
Allow me to underscore this: a youth in Kingston, Ontario was a wannabe ISIS terrorist, had manufactured an explosive device and sought to sow mayhem. In Canada.
A recent case in Kingston brought this to the fore in a big way. A teen pleaded guilty to four terrorism offences and admitted that he had ‘pledged allegiance’ to Islamic State (ISIS). In addition, he had worked with an ‘attack planner’ based in Syria to plot bombings in Canada, to possibly include nightclubs, churches and sporting venues, all places “good to kill Christians” according to the youth.
The Islamist terrorist threat to the West has not gone away
Allow me to underscore this: a youth in Kingston, Ontario was a wannabe ISIS terrorist, had manufactured an explosive device and sought to sow mayhem. In Canada. From Kingston. You could not make something more bizarre up if you tried.
What this means is that the growing calls to focus counter terrorism investigative resources on RWE are wrong. The Islamist terrorist threat to the West (there have been several attacks and foiled attacks in several European cities in recent months) has not gone away, no matter what US President Trump said about ISIS’ ‘total defeat’. Most credible analysts see an ISIS on the ascendant in Iraq and Syria, with growing affiliates in Asia (witness yesterday’s IS in Khorasan attack on an Afghan prison) and Africa, as well as self starters in the West, much like the Kingston youth. Other violent Islamist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and a number of ‘independents’ are also very active around the world.
The simple truth is that the Islamist threat must remain a priority for CSIS and the RCMP, which must also deal with a possibly rising RWE threat. It is not a case of either/or: it is a case of both/and. This means more resources for these agencies.
Furthermore, at a time where no one seems to have anything good to say about the RCMP, this case demonstrates that the Mounties carried out a textbook counter-terrorism investigation that involved human agents and (likely) warranted intercepts. The evidence gathered was so strong as to convince the youth to plead guilty rather than challenge the findings in court. That, too, speaks volumes.
What, then should Canadians take from this news? Several important issues:
- Islamist terrorism is far from dead;
- RWE extremism deserves to be investigated but not at the expense of Islamist terrorism;
- Canada’s public safety agencies are competent and standing on guard for us; and
- Canada is not immune from terrorism planned by individuals inspired by groups such as ISIS: there have been several successful attacks over the past few years (Rehab Dughmosh, Abdulahi Hasan Sharif) and there will be more.
Can we please not see terrorism as a zero-sum game when it comes to our attention? It does not work that way.
This contribution was published on The Ottawa Citizen on August 11, 2020